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STEPHEN WAS TINY, DESPERATE, UNWELL! Rehema Ellis lied through her teeth about our glorious history: // link // print // previous // next //
THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 30, 2010

Even more of our liberal brilliance: Your country has no liberal politics, a fact which has become more clear as this election season unfolds. But for flat-out dumberer-level nonsense, let’s consider more of Lawrence O’Donnell’s performance on Tuesday night’s Last Word.

It was O’Donnell’s second night on the air, on our One True Liberal Channel. Midway through, he welcomed a famous guest. His guest was live in studio:

O’DONNELL (9/28/10): In our spotlight tonight, Levi Johnston. Levi, thanks very much for joining me, coming all the way across the country to be in our new studio here.

Again, the punch line from Carole Leifer’s old joke ran though the analysts’ heads. (How far down the evolutionary scale do we have to go…? See THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/15/10.) Soon, O’Donnell was helping his liberal viewers relish their cultural greatness:

O’DONNELL: So how are you doing on the GED?

JOHNSTON: You know, it’s ready to go. I imagine here in the next month, it will be done, wrapped up.

O’DONNELL: You’re working on it.

JOHNSTON: Oh, yeah.

O’DONNELL: All right. Now, next time you get that GED question, between now and then—

JOHNSTON: I can’t wait to get it.

O’DONNELL: I have two words for you: Abraham Lincoln. OK? That puts it away. You’re done. Never graduated from high school.

We liberals are so much smarter than Johnston! So you’ll know, O’Donnell’s remark about Abraham Lincoln was apparently meant as a joke.

Soon, O’Donnell began to quiz the mayoral hopeful:

O’DONNELL: Let’s talk about how you’re studying up. When it comes to establishing your world view, I’m just curious. What newspapers and magazines do you read regularly?

JOHNSTON: I read Frontiersman every once in a while.

O`DONNELL: Frontiersman?

JOHNSTON: Frontiersman, Wasilla. Always at the office. I’m not going to sit here and tell you I read a lot of newspapers. I don’t get the New York Times, I don’t watch a whole lot of news. I don’t watch TV that often.

O’DONNELL: OK. And what’s your position on global warming? Do you believe it’s man-made or not?

JOHNSTON: No, I don’t.

O’DONNELL: You don’t believe it’s man-made? Or you do believe it’s man-made?

JOHNSTON: I don’t believe it’s man-made.

O’DONNELL: Now, some people have credited the morning-after pill with decreasing the number of abortions. How do you feel about the morning-after pill?

We’ll spare you the rest of this nonsense. But at the end of the candidate’s grilling, O’Donnell helped us admire his own major brilliance, noting that “all those questions are exactly what Katie Couric asked Sarah Palin when she was running for vice president. And let me tell you, she struggled. If you think they were tough, you’re not the only one who struggled with those.”

This morning, Willie Geist aired parts of this interview for the second straight day on his early-morning show, Way Too Willie. But this morning, he announced that the questions were the same ones asked by Couric, as his technical staff loudly guffawed and chortled.

No one who has watched O’Donnell down through the years could be surprised by his pitiful conduct. But let’s put this in a broader context:

For decades, the liberal world slept in the woods. Tell the truth: Did you ever dream that, when “liberals” re-emerged, they would be so defiantly inane—so completely and utterly corporate?

Special report: Don’t know much trigonometry!

INTERLUDE—STEPHEN WAS TINY, DESPERATE, UNWELL (permalink): NBC News has really dragged out a gang of hacks to beat up on teachers all this week, even as they pretend to discuss the state of the public schools.

Especially for low-income kids, our schools produce some very bad outcomes. But on last Sunday’s Meet the Press, David Gregory could only imagine one possible approach to this matter. In the following passage, he starts beating up on Randi Weingarten again. Weingarten is—what else?—the head of a big teachers union:

GREGORY (9/26/10): And we're back, live from 30 Rockefeller Plaza in New York, to continue our discussion about public school education.

Randi Weingarten, I want to get to this issue of how we get the best teachers in front of our students. And let's get right to this point. I'm a parent, I have three young kids. If I go into my child's classroom and I'm basically told, "Look, this teacher's really not doing that well, but we want to give them another year, see how they do this year. We want to try to develop them a little bit, so maybe by, you know, maybe not in this year, but maybe next year, things will get better." That's not good enough for me as a parent.

WEINGARTEN: Right.

GREGORY: So show me—tell me specifically what you, representing teachers across the country, have done to avoid that reality when it appears that, in fact, the unions have said to people like Michelle Rhee, “You can't get rid of these people, you can't just fire them willy-nilly if you don't have the right results. You're demonizing the teachers.”

David Gregory seems to know two things about public schools:

First, things would be better we had better teachers. (And none of the teachers should be inexperienced.)

Second: Things would be much better if teachers would do whatever Michelle Rhee tells them. (If she wants to “just fire them willy-nilly,” teachers should put on their hats.)

We don’t mean this as a criticism of Rhee, who has real strengths and real weaknesses. But truly, a six-year-old child could have come up with Gregory’s tiny approach to this problem: If we don’t like our test results, it must the fault of the teachers! Confronted with a massive, long-standing problem, he has heard only one explanation—it’s the fault of the teachers! Paid $5 million per year, he brought this tiny framework on Sunday when he was chauffeured to his place of “work.”

Other questions didn’t arise during Gregory’s clueless discussion:

Is the curriculum right for low-income kids? Are low-income kids handled correctly starting in kindergarten, where they may already be far “behind” traditional developmental norms? How about instructional materials—are there plenty of readable textbooks for kids who may be years below traditional grade level? Are enough of our low-income kids going to good preschools? Should we be teaching low-income parents how to help their children become more literate? How might we encourage black kids to avoid the idea that education is “a white thing?” No such thoughts littered the beautiful mind of the corporate child who is paid all those millions. All through Sunday’s Meet the Press, he just kept assailing the head of the teachers. No other thought, perspective or outlook popped from his large, empty head.

That said, Gregory seemed like a major genius compared to “education reporter” Rehema Ellis, who offered an astounding report on Sunday night’s NBC Nightly News. She spoke with anchor Lester Holt about that day’s “Education Nation” events. These events included a two-hour “teacher town hall” hosted by Brian Williams, and a second, hour-long special hosted by Joe and Mika.

When it came to understanding this topic, all three seemed to have arrived from Neptune at some point in the last week.

Back to Rehema Ellis on Sunday night: Like Gregory, she seemed to have one lonely focus—the ratty work being done by our teachers. Beyond that, her astounding account of recent educational history must have been phoned in from Mars:

ELLIS (9/26/10): Good evening, Lester. It was an exciting event. For two hours today the teachers who joined us were inspiring, some even emotional about the job that many say is stressful and extremely demanding.

Right now, the teacher's job is under critical review because of what is and what is not happening in the classroom. America's public school students are in trouble. On nearly every major ranking, the results are disappointing.

Forty years ago, American students were first. Now, among 30 developed nations, our students rank 24th in math, 17th in science and 10th in reading. Sixty-eight percent of American eighth graders cannot read at grade level. Nationwide nearly 70 percent of our students graduate from high school, but among African-American, Latino and low-income students, just over 50 percent graduate each year.

Simply put, that history is astounding. In a rational world, a person would get banned from local-access cable for such a strange set of claims.

“Forty years ago, American students were first?” Ellis led with this amorphous claim, suggesting that the state of the schools has greatly declined since that golden age. But at what were American students first? Ellis didn’t explain. But in the context of elementary and middle school test scores—in a discussion of low-income students—this was an astonishing claim, a claim which reinvents brutal history.

How bizarre was Ellis’ claim? Forty-three years ago, in 1967, Jonathan Kozol published his famous book, Death at an Early Age. He described the year he spent teaching fourth grade in a low-income Boston school.

Kozol’s book won the National Book Award during the golden age cited by Ellis. Chapter 2 started like this:

KOZOL (page 9): Many people in Boston are surprised, even to this day, to be told that children are beaten with thin bamboo whips within the cellars of our public schools and that they are whipped at times for no greater offence than for failing to show respect to the very same teachers who have been describing them as niggers.

Oh, that glorious era! Indeed, Kozol started his opening chapter with some of the most memorable persuasive writing of that or any day. This was his real-time account of an age when, according to NBC News, “American students were first:”

KOZOL (page 1): Stephen is eight years old. A picture of him standing in front of the bulletin board on Arab bedouins shows a little light-brown person staring with unusual concentration at a chosen spot upon the floor. Stephen is tiny, desperate, unwell. Sometimes he talks to himself. He moves his mouth as if he were talking. At other times he laughs out loud in class for no apparent reason. He is also an indescribably mild and unmalicious child. He cannot do any of his school work very well. His math and reading are poor. In Third Grade he was in a class that had substitute teachers much of the year. Most of the year before that, he had a row of substitute teachers too. He is in the Fourth Grade now but his work is barely at the level of the Second. Nobody has complained about the things that have happened to Stephen because he does not have any mother or father.

A personal note: Two years later, we began teaching in the Baltimore schools. In November 1969, we took over a fifth-grade class in a small school in west central Baltimore. Our class was full of delightful kids; no one was “tiny, desperate, unwell.” But like the classes Kozol described, those delightful fifth-grade kids had had substitute teachers all year. Brand new, untrained, 21 years old, we weren’t a whole lot better. Kozol too was hired in Boston as a new, uncertified teacher.

Back to Kozol’s famous portrait of Stephen:

“He is in the Fourth Grade now but his work is barely at the level of the Second?” We now know Kozol was lying. After all, in service to the ugly scripts which so please her corporate owners, Rehema Ellis has helped us learn that “American students were first” during this glorious age! (By plain inference from her report, things are vastly worse in this current, fallen age.)

That said, the figure filberts at the National Assessment of Educational Progress (the NAEP) might be a bit surprised by Ellis’ constellation of claims. Their program is routinely described as the “gold standard” of educational testing; Ellis used their data for her (bogus) claim about eighth-grade reading. But what gives? NAEP data show today’s black kids doing massively better in reading and math than their counterparts from the golden age when “American students were first.” Go ahead, NBC viewers! Click here, then scroll to Figure 4, page 14, to see the progress displayed by black kids who are 9 years old—one year older than Stephen. Adjusting for a technical change in 2004, 9-year-old black kids gained 37 points on the NAEP scale from 1971 to 2008; this matches the time frame Ellis selected. Meanwhile, how big is a gain of 37 points? According to a very rough rule of thumb, ten points is routinely said to equal one academic year on the NAEP scale.

“American students were first,” Ellis said, referring to that past glorious age—an era when children like Stephen were whipped, insulted and handed strings of substitute teachers, when the national test scores of kids like Stephen reflected this ludicrous treatment. Truly, for six-figure players like Ellis, there is no lie too vast to recite in service to corporate scripts.

Other parts of Ellis’ account make little apparent sense. “Now, among 30 developed nations, our students rank 24th in math, 17th in science and 10th in reading,” she proclaims, apparently grabbing various scores from the PISA tests of 2000, 2003 and/or 2006. In truth, every part of that statement seems to be wrong, though it isn’t clear where her numbers have come from. But note the oddness of her claims as she continues her primal wail:

Somehow, we’re supposed to get upset when our students are said to rank tenth in reading, out of thirty developed nations. (We have no idea why such a result would be scandalous. Why should American kids read better than kids in Sweden? Because of our “exceptionalism?” Where do they get these hacks?) In the next sentence, we are told that 68 percent of these kids—they rank tenth in the world!—“cannot read at grade level.” Question: At NBC News, do our claims have to make any apparent sense, as long as they’re delivered in a tone of voice which is sufficiently ominous—as long as they’re framed within a standard script?

Must anything we say be accurate? Must anything make real sense?

It would be hard to overstate Ellis’ sprawling incompetence. It’s wickedly strange to see such incompetence driving a set of claims about the way American children are the dumbest known bunnies on earth. It’s especially gruesome to see such claims offered by someone who presumably “earns” in the high six figures—even as she uses her bungled claims to suggest that we may be paying our teachers too much, giving them too much security (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/29/10).

“Forty years ago, American students were first?” In that amorphous, scripted statement, we gaze on the soul of a gruesome elite. This elite is now rewriting our history, servicing a novelized tale which suits its current policy preferences.

“Forty years ago,” in fact, American schools were often a gruesome disgrace. Test scores by minority kids didn’t begin to approach the levels to which they have risen today. That said, we haven’t escaped the arc of our brutal, ugly history, a thoroughly disappeared world to which we’ll return tomorrow.

TOMORROW—PART 3: Why did we score 21st out of 30? Breaking that test score down.

MONDAY—PART 4: Rehema does Finland

Further notes from a glorious age: Stephen was tiny, desperate, unwell. Two pages after that introduction, Kozol offered a comically awful portrait of some instruction being offered to Stephen’s fourth-grade class. This all took place in the glorious age described by the unwell Ellis:

KOZOL (page 3): The Art Teacher’s most common technique of art instruction was to pass out mimeographed designs and then to have the pupils fill them in according to a dictated or suggested color plan. An alternate approach was to tack up on the blackboard some of the drawings on a particular subject that had been done in the previous years by predominantly white classes. These drawings, neat and ordered and very uniform, would be the models for our children. The art lesson, in effect, would be to copy what had been done before, and the neatest and most accurate reproduction of the original drawings would be the ones that would win the most approval from the teacher. None of the new drawings, the Art Teacher would tell me frequently, was comparable to the work that had been done in former times, but at least the children in the class could try to copy good examples.

Decades later, the damage done, we can only laugh at this god-awful portrait. This portrait is especially sad for the following reason: For kids who are struggling with literacy problems, art can be a highly visible forum in which they can visibly shine—in which they might be allowed to see themselves as visible high achievers.

Children who cry about their literacy problems may be quite good at art. It can be a good thing when they see that.

One other point: Today, the NAEP scores of black kids are massively higher than in 1971, when “American students were first.” How about Hispanic kids? In 1971, the NAEP didn’t even break Hispanics out as a separate demographic, perhaps because we had so few Hispanic kids in the schools. By 1975, the NAEP was showing that Hispanic kids constituted 5 percent of the student population among 9-year-olds and 13-year-olds, 3 percent among 17-year-olds. By 2008, that percentage had jumped to 23 percent among 9-year-old students tested in math. This fact will come into play tomorrow, when we break down that commonly-cited score from that 2006 PISA science literacy test (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/29/10). On that test, American 15-year-olds scored 21st out of 30 (Stephen Holden)—or 17th out of 30, if you take your data from Ellis. (We’re assuming this test is her source—that she has [mis]applied a few strictures about “statistical significance.”)

For ourselves, we would stick with “21st out of 30.” So why did our students score so low? Is it because of the teachers? The unions? We’re sure the teachers and their unions could perform better in various ways. But why do we sometimes score so low compared with other developed nations? Our brutal history comes into play—a story corporate hacks like Ellis will sell their souls to avoid. (Her report on last evening’s Nightly News was another instant classic.)

Liberals avoid this story too, as you can see from the liberal world’s silence about NBC’s recent conduct. Editors of our liberal journals have to get their mugs on Hardball, you know! Who else could complain about Christine O’Donnell? About Meg Whitman’s maid?

As we’ve told you:

The liberal world quit on Stephen a long time ago. It happened about ten years after Kozol’s book came—and went.