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A LOT TO UNLEARN! The Post has found a graduate student who writes like an actual expert: // link // print // previous // next //

HOW TO REPORT BALD-FACED LYING: Dirty e-mails now rule the world, crowding out news which is much more important. That said, kudos to the Post’s Peter Baker for noticing, and reporting, the latest case of bald-faced lying by a ranking public official. Is there anything George Bush won’t say to the public? Apparently, no—there is not:
BAKER (10/5/06): As Bush wound up a three-day campaign swing out west on Wednesday, for example, he attacked Democrats for voting last week against legislation authorizing warrantless telephone and e-mail surveillance.

"One hundred and seventy-seven of the opposition party said, 'You know, we don't think we ought to be listening to the conversations of terrorists,' " Bush said at a fundraiser for Rep. Rick Renzi (R-Ariz.) before heading to Colorado for gubernatorial candidate Bob Beauprez.

Asked about the president's statement, White House aides could not name any Democrat who has said that the government should not listen in on terrorists...
In fact, no Democrat “has said that the government should not listen in on terrorists.” Indeed, Bush’s use of such straw men is now so common that many scribes do what Baker did; they ask the White House to name the Dems who hold the position under attack. Usually, the White House can’t do so. That said, Baker deserves credit for calling attention to Bush’s latest lie of this kind.

On the other hand, Baker gave a rather weak explanation of what was wrong with Bush’s statement. Here is the continuation of the passage quoted above:
BAKER: Asked about the president's statement, White House aides could not name any Democrat who has said that the government should not listen in on terrorists. Democrats who voted against the legislation had complained that it would hand too much power to the president and had said that they wanted more checks in the bill to protect civil liberties.

Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) called Bush's comment outrageous: "Every member of Congress, from both parties, supports listening in on terrorist communications, but the president still hasn't explained why we have to break the law to do it. It is time for the president to stop exploiting the terrorist threat to justify his power grab."

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino defended Bush's remark as a reasonable extrapolation of the Democratic position. "Of course, they aren't silly enough to say they don't want to listen in on terrorists, but actions speak louder than words, and people should know what the Democrats' voting record is," she said.
Baker quotes Feingold saying the obvious—and Post readers may be able to see how dishonest Perino’s floundering is. But surely, Baker could give a simpler presentation of the Democratic position. We’ve highlighted Baker’s explanation, but neither he nor Feingold (as quoted) states the simplest fact: Dems want to continue to “listen in on terrorists,” but they want to do so with the approval of the FISA court, as has been the norm (and the law).

Baker deserves credit for highlighting Bush’s statement, but he seems to have pulled his punch just a tad. Readers deserved a clearer explanation of what was wrong with Bush’s remark.

A LOT TO UNLEARN: Three cheers for the Washington Post, which has finally found an educational expert! Her name is Jennifer Booher-Jennings, and she wrote this superlative op-ed piece in yesterday’s paper. And omigod! We suppose it should come as no surprise, but the expert here is a graduate student! “The writer is a doctoral candidate in sociology at Columbia University,” the Post’s ID line says.

Booher-Jennings writes about some of the unintended, semi-foreseeable consequences of No Child Left Behind. First, she provides some basic background about the way the program works—about its ill-considered incentives:
BOOHER-JENNINGS (10/5/06): The problem is a classic case of misaligned incentives. No Child evaluates schools by the percentage of students passing state tests. Imagine that students must answer 70 percent of the questions correctly to pass. Schools get no credit for moving a student from a 15 to a 69, or from a 70 to a 95. Yet if educators nudge a student from a 69 to a 71, the school's passing rate increases.
Under the program’s Rube Goldberg-like scheme, you don’t get credit for helping a child who is far below the “passing” level. And you don’t get credit for helping a child who is already above that level. Writing like an actual expert, Booher-Jennings explains what happens next:
BOOHER-JENNINGS (continuing directly): The stakes for schools are enormous. So it isn't surprising that many educators game the system by reaching first for...the students closest to passing. Dubbed the "bubble kids," because their scores put them on the bubble of the passing mark, these students give schools the biggest bang for the buck. In response to this incentive, many schools have rationed out practically all of their resources to these students. Meanwhile, the lowest-performing students, the "hopeless cases," languish. So do their high-performing classmates, who are relegated to the waiting room while the bubble kids are cured.
Gruesome. Booher-Jennings quotes a Texas teacher who “poignantly captured this dilemma as we discussed Ana, a low-performing student in her class.” “What's the point in trying to get her to grade level?” the teacher is quoted saying. “It would take two years to get her to pass the test, so there's really no hope for her. I feel like we might as well focus on the ones there's hope for.” In this context, of course, “the ones there's hope for” actually means “the children who might meet the arbitrary standard established by Texas’ state-wide test.” In this teacher’s classroom, kids who are working below that level are abandoned. They die on the vine.

It may seem hard to believe that teachers and principals would really behave this way. But teachers and principals have been cheating on tests, in various ways, over the course of the past forty years, ever since standardized tests were first used to measure teacher “accountability.” This new malfeasance goes a step beyond that. But, as Booher-Jennings says, we shouldn’t really be surprised when we see teachers do things like this. We should, however, be deeply unforgiving. For what it’s worth, Booher-Jennings is much too kind to the teachers who perform this sort of triage. Here’s the one weak part of her column:
BOOHER-JENNINGS: It would be easy to question the ethics of educators engaged in triage, but they are doing exactly what the No Child Left Behind Act asks them to do. Policymakers, not teachers, must be held accountable for implementing a policy that rewards schools for privileging some students at the expense of others.
In fact, “it would be easy to question these teachers’ ethics” because their ethics are so appalling. No teacher is forced to behave this way. Those who do should quickly be fired. Prosecution for gross malfeasance would be an appropriate further step.

That one passage to the side, Booher-Jennings does the unthinkable in this column. Writing in a major newspaper, she actually shows some real expertise about the way our school systems work. Amazingly, her piece makes sense from beginning to end, even as she suggests some ways to reform this appalling situation. We’re much more used to pieces like this, in which Potemkin “educational experts” huff and puff and churn blue smoke. Here’s the part of this Sunday piece where our analysts just threw up their hands:
TOCH AND MEAD (10/1/06): Meanwhile, the exodus of the black middle class to the suburbs over the past three decades has left [D.C.] schools with a large population of students living in circumstances that are more expensive for schools to overcome. Sixty-four percent live in or near poverty. Sixty-eight percent live in single-parent homes, and 52 percent live in homes without a parent who works full time. Other area school systems don't have to confront the consequences of statistics as daunting as these.
Good God! How do the writers describe poverty kids from low-literacy backgrounds—kids who are found in large numbers in D.C.’s schools? They are simply “living in circumstances that are more expensive for schools to overcome!” Of course, this bit of cosmic happy-talk implies that the D.C. schools would be able to educate these kids if only they had sufficient money. They know how to do it—it’s just “more expensive!” This strikes us as such a flight from reality that it simply defies comprehension. Having spent twelve years teaching kids in urban schools, we find it disgusting when our big “experts” dissemble about them this way.

But that’s normal issue from our “educational experts”—the pampered poodles who sit and stare (and churn happy-pap) while the Anas get thrown on the junk pile. By contrast, Booher-Jennings, still in graduate school, writes with insight, skill and clarity. Clearly, she has a lot to unlearn before she achieves “expert” ranking.

WE ENJOYED THIS PASSAGE TOO: We also loved this passage:
TOCH AND MEAD: It's local lore—and an oft-repeated talking point among Republicans in Congress—that [D.C.’s] schools are awash in cash that only needs to be put to better use. In fact, the city's congressionally approved $1.05 billion operating budget generates less funding per student ($12,612) than do Alexandria ($15,871) and Arlington ($16,464). And while Prince George's County ($9,638) and Fairfax County ($11,915) spend less than the District, Montgomery County spends nearly the same.
So let’s see. Two large local counties “spend less than the District”—and “Montgomery County spends nearly the same.” Could that passage possibly mean that (upper-income) Montgomery County also spends less than the District? That’s what we’d have to guess from reading it. We know, we know—it’s technically logical. It just strikes us as something else—slick.

NOTE/FOR THE RECORD: Urban systems often have more “special needs” students than suburban systems—and those students typically cost more on a per pupil basis. In that circumstance, urban systems need to spend more per pupil to maintain a comparable level of services.

None of this addresses the basic question Toch and Mead so slickly obscure: At any level of per-pupil spending, do the D.C. schools know how “to overcome” the “circumstances” of the poverty kids they enroll? We’d assume the answer is obvious: No. Toch and Mead imply the opposite—but they don’t actually come out and say it, and they offer no reason why we should think so. Once in a while, it wouldn’t hurt to be straightforward about our painful urban dilemma—to speak directly about the children who deserve our total good faith.

UPDATE—SONS OF FOLEY: As readers may know, we’re back at work on our previously-lapsed book about the press coverage of Campaign 2000. Yes, it’s a remarkable story, and we think Democrats need to hear it.

By happenstance, we were working yesterday on the chapter about the invention of the AL GORE, LIAR script in March 1999. The most important building-block of this punishing script—the script which clearly sent Bush to the White House—was the invention of the iconic claim that Al Gore said he invented the Internet. This week, two liberal bloggers were still amusing the world with hilarious jokes on this punishing theme. So here’s the question: Who was the very first person to use the phrase “invented the Internet?” No, Gore never said “invented” in the mildly murky but unremarkable statement which was “paraphrased” in the now-famous way. Just who was the very first person to paraphrase Gore in this fashion?

Answer? Omigod! Mark Foley! Here’s the start of the Hotline’s report about the first day of the flap:
THE HOTLINE (3/12/99):
House GOPers 3/11 "gleefully pounced on" VP Gore's televised remark that he had taken "the initiative in creating the Internet." Dick Armey: "If the vice president created the Internet, then I created the Interstate highway system. When historians write about the Internet, I don't think they'll put the vice president in the same category as Thomas Edison." In an interview shown on CNN 3/9, Gore was asked about his vision and his experience and he mentioned that while he served in Congress, "I took the initiative in creating the Internet." Rep. Mark Foley: "The vice president is mistaken. The only thing he has ever invented is another tax. He did not invent the Internet but he sure did tax it." (Reuters, 3/12).
Within days, “invented the Internet” was the phrasing of choice as the War Against Gore started fast.

At any rate, when we liberals joke on this theme, we channel none other than Foley. He was the first to arrive at the scene. We honor him now with our jokes.

HOWLER HISTORY: Here is the full Q-and-A which ended up putting Bush in the White House. And yes, that’s how Campaign 2000 worked:
BLITZER (3/9/99): I want to get to some of those substantive domestic and international questions in a bit, but let's just wrap up a bit of the politics right now. Why should Democrats, looks at the Democratic nomination, the process, support you instead of Bill Bradley—a friend of yours, a former colleague in the Senate. What do you have to bring to this that he doesn't necessarily bring to this process?

GORE: Well, I will—I'll be offering my vision when my campaign begins, and it'll be comprehensive and sweeping, and I hope that it'll be compelling enough to draw people toward it. I feel that it will be. But it will emerge from my dialogue with the American people. I've traveled to every part of this country during the last six years. During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet. I took the initiative in moving forward a whole range of initiatives that have proven to be important to our country's economic growth, environmental protection, improvements in our educational system. During a quarter century of public service, including most of it long before I came into my current job, I have worked to try to improve the quality of life in our country and in our world. And what I've seen during that experience is an emerging future that's very exciting, about which I'm very optimistic and toward which I'm—I want to lead.
As everyone knew, Gore had taken the leadership, within the Congress, in the development of what we now call the Net. (A few days later, when he was asked, he said that’s what he had meant by this statement.) But the press corps was mad about President Clinton’s ten blow jobs, and they were looking to take it out on Gore. This minor murk provided a route to this deeply desirable outcome.

And the brilliant Mark Foley was there with the phrasing. It’s Mark Foley’s work we channel today when we tell our hilarious jokes. It’s as if Mark Foley showed up at our dorms and eagerly we let him in.