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NINE PRESCRIPTIONS! If we want to survive Davis Guggenheim’s film, we should do eight or nine things: // link // print // previous // next //
WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 6, 2010

Beyond pathetic: We’ll return to Dana Milbank’s breakthrough essay before the week is done. But today, we want to devote this space to a minor, floundering moment last night from the increasingly pathetic Ed Schultz.

More and more, it’s beyond pathetic to watch him. Last night, Big Ed attempted to correct Glenn Beck’s basic math. And yes, Schultz actually said this:

SCHULTZ (10/5/10): A couple final pages in the Playbook tonight. Nutty professor Glenn Beck—well, he had some trouble last night when he was trying to do a little simple math. Let’s take a look at this one:

BECK (videotape): There are less people but it doesn’t matter. I mean it is not like there are less people or you know, less people that are Democrats in America. We are pretty evenly divided. We are about 35 percent independents now, 33 percent Republican, 33 percent Democrat.

SCHULTZ: Did he learn that at Beck U? Nice try, Glenn. Now, if you were trying to get to that 100 percent, your math is pretty bad. Thirty-five plus 33 plus 33 is 101. Better luck next time, Big Guy.

In his incarnation of the past few months, Schultz labors, struggles and strains each night, helping us learn to hate The Other, by whatever means necessary, however dumb. But this was especially pitiful.

Does Schultz know what the word “about” means—as in, “we are about 35 percent independents?” In his comment, Beck didn’t cite any particular survey. But as everyone who has ever worked with numbers knows, survey results often add up to more than 100 percent. Can Ed Schultz really be this dumb? Or does he just think you are?

Second point: As we watched Schultz, we were struck by the way he seemed to miss the larger point—typically, more Americans self-identify as Democrats than as Republicans. Bungling his own basic math, Big Eddie went right past that point.

Unfortunately, we checked this morning at Gallup—and even on this basic measure, the numbers have been moving against Democrats. Below, you see a basic survey question. Gallup asks it once or twice per month:

GALLUP SURVEY QUESTION: In politics, as of today, do you consider yourself a Republican, a Democrat, or an independent? (Asked of independents: As of today, do you lean more to the Democratic Party or the Republican Party?)

Ugh. In its most recent survey (September 13-16), Republicans actually went ahead of Dems. That is not the norm. From the summer of 2009 through February 2010, Democrats routinely led by six or more points on this question. (To see all data back through 2004, just click here.)

That said, Schultz increasingly performs like a low-IQ clown on his show. That takedown last night was especially foolish. Maybe the guy is really this dumb—or maybe he just thinks you are.

Question: Is this really the way to move progressive interests forward? There’s no “correct” answer, of course.

Special report: Surviving Superman!

PART 2—NINE PRESCRIPTIONS (permalink): Routinely, if it weren’t for the mis-information, we wouldn’t have any “information” at all!

In recent weeks, Davis Guggenheim’s film, Waiting for Superman, has generated many misses, often from the nation’s film critics. In Boston alone, the nation’s unsuspecting rubes have been subjected to nonsense like this:

Wesley Morris, Boston Globe (10/1/10): Aside from the demoralizing [charter school] lotteries, the most astounding thing in the movie is the wealth of depressing facts indicating how steeply in decline American education has been since the 1970s. Our very best math students, we're told, now rank 25th out of 30 developed countries, and 21st in science. That might just be accidentally inspirational. You want to get better at math just to improve those numbers.

Margery Eagan, Boston Herald (10/1/10): “Waiting for Superman” lays out, with depressing clarity, the damage done to American kids, both poor and middle class, by unions protecting bad teachers from firing…

It blames politicians, particularly Democrats, for being “wholly owned” subsidiaries of teachers unions, which donate more to their coffers than either the NRA or Teamsters.

Did you know America used to lead the world in public education? Now, Guggenheim reports, we are 25th in math and 21st in science and getting trounced by places we once considered Third World, such as India.

The creativity is always striking.

Reading Morris, Bostonians learned that American education has been “steeply in decline…since the 1970s.” Did he mean since the start of the 1970s, or since the end of that decade? Whichever point we select, his claim is massively contradicted by our best domestic data (see below)—data he has almost surely never heard described.

Reading Eagan, things got worse. “America used to lead the world in public education,” the know-nothing cipher foolishly typed, failing to specify what she meant. But now, we have fallen to 25th in math—and we’re even “getting trounced by places like India.” Whatever Eagan is talking about—there’s little chance she actually knows—such comparisons are deeply invested in apples and oranges. (For the record, India has not participated in any of the major international measures from which Guggenheim’s data are drawn.)

Might Bostonians turn to national figures for a bit of clarification? Reading the nation’s best-known film critic, they got handed this load of shinola:

Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (10/1/10): "Waiting for Superman," the new documentary by Davis Guggenheim, contends the American educational system is failing, which we have been told before. He dramatizes this failure in a painfully direct way, says what is wrong, says what is right. One of his charts gets a laugh from the audience: Of developed nations, American students rank last in math skills. When the students are asked to guess their standing, Americans put themselves first.

“American students rank last in math skills?” Sorry, that just isn’t accurate. (We’ve seen no one else describe such a chart.) Ebert goes on to offer pointless, amorphous, mush-mouthed claims about what is “possible for even the most disadvantaged students.” In Newsweek, meanwhile, political know-it-all Jonathan Alter issued a set of know-nothing claims, weirdly dating “the push for reform” to “the 1983 government report ‘A Nation at Risk.’ ”

Magi like Alter know everything. Did this nation’s “push for reform” really start in 1983? Between 1971 and 1984, the average reading score of black 9-year-olds jumped 16 points on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a program Alter knows nothing about; the average score of black 13-year-olds jumped 14 points in that period. (By a very rough rule of thumb, ten points is routinely said to equal one academic year on the NAEP.) Presumably, this was partly due to the drive for reform which started in the 1960s, with widely-read books by young liberal writers like Herbert Kohl and Jonathan Kozol. On occasion, one can find a published writer with some idea what he’s talking about; in the New Yorker, Nicholas Lemann remembered his nation’s actual history with a bit more clarity:

LEMANN (9/27/10): The school-reform story draws its moral power from the heartbreakingly low quality of the education that many poor, urban, and minority children in public schools get. This problem isn't new, and the historical context is important: one of the cornerstones of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society was the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, which for the first time directed substantial national funding to schools attended by these children…The gap in educational achievement between black and white children narrowed during the nineteen-seventies and eighties, and has been mainly stuck since then, but it's misleading to suggest that the gap is getting bigger.

Duh. Altered history to the side, the federal “push for reform” was well underway by the late 1960s, when the NAEP began its national testing. For the record, one quibble with Lemann; it’s also “misleading” to say that the achievement gap “has mainly been stuck” since the 1980s without noting that black and Hispanic achievement has grown a great deal since that time. (The gap has remained because white achievement has grown by almost as much.)

“This problem isn’t new?” Reading the claptrap of writers like Morris and Eagan, people in Boston may have gotten a very different idea. They may have gotten the silly idea that things were great before the 1970s, when “American students were first in the world.” During that golden era, of course, black children were whipped in the basements of Boston’s schools, and they couldn’t read or cipher well, as Kozol described in his-once famous book. But when ciphers like Guggenheim are unloosed, nonsense runs all through the land.

If it weren’t for the mis-information, we wouldn’t have any information at all! In the past several decades, this has been the familiar shape of American discourse as plutocrats, and their overpaid servants, have taken control of the culture. Do we want to have a real “great debate” about the state of the nation’s schools? If so, we would offer eight or nine prescriptions.

This morning, let’s scan the first three:

Stop with the magic bullets: By all accounts, Guggenheim’s film is all about the failures of America’s teachers and their infernal teachers unions. Without any doubt, our schools could be better if we had “better teachers.” (Though it isn’t clear how to identify same.) Presumably, teachers unions have sometimes made poor choices. But only a fool could really think that America’s massive educational challenges stem from this one magic source. Only a fool could think such a thing—but the press corps is crawling with such people, as is Guggenheim’s Hollywood.

When it comes to low-income schools, pseudo-liberals and media stooges have chased magic bullets since the 1960s. Frauds like Guggenheim always have some simple solution to sell. To appearances, they never have the slightest idea what they’re talking about.

Stop lying about our test scores: If we claim to care about public schools, could we possibly start to tell the truth about our most basic data? Hacks like those we’ve cited above are happy to tell the latest tale—a tale of misery and decline from the golden age of the 1970s (or before). In fact, all major student demographic groups are reading better, and doing math better, than they were in that earlier period. In particular, test scores of black kids and Hispanic kids have shown remarkable gains.

These facts are never discussed in public. Our American discourse is often a novel, with elites agreeing to tell bogus tales. (Al Gore has a problem with the truth!) But we have rarely seen a subject where the most basic data are so uniformly withheld from view. In fact, the scores of low-income kids are massively up on our most reliable tests. But for the typical American citizen, it is virtually impossible to learn this basic fact.

Stop lying about our glorious past: Truly, it should be disgusting to read about that golden age of American education. On NBC News, Rehema Ellis pimped the same pap Morris would peddle a few days later. She spoke with anchor Lester Holt on the NBC Nightly News:

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.

“Forty years ago, American students were first!” Days later, Eagan and Morris would make the same amorphous claim in Boston’s two major dailies. We don’t whip “journalists” in this country, of course—but Ellis and Morris, who are themselves black, ought to be reminded that black children were being whipped in Boston’s schools during that glorious age, when “American students were first.” Eagan, who is fashionably white, should get her keister kicked too.

What on earth makes adults agree to tell such ludicrous tales?

You live in a land of magical tales, where “the news” has long been a series of novels. In truth, you will never see a “great debate” about the state of your nation’s schools. Instead, you’ll be exposed to whatever piffle the plutocrats select for you. But today, we’ve listed three prescriptions for the debate which will never occur. Tomorrow, we will list three more.

Three more will follow on Friday.