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BROCKTON HIGH IS US! On page one, the New York Times bungles again. Why can’t the Times read, write or cipher? // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, OCTOBER 8, 2010

Milbank’s revolution: Good God, but our culture is a joke! At a time of deep economic dislocation, we talk about who called Meg Whitman a “whore.” (This ate up the first fifteen minutes of today’s Morning Joe.) We feign surprise when we learn that political ads are filmed with actors—and we pretend to be offended that someone used the word “hicky.”

A culture of feigned offense rules the land. At a time of peace and prosperity, this would be a massively stupid approach—but in a time of deep dislocation, this conduct is simply mad. Meanwhile, in today’s New York Times, a full-page ad announces the fact that Mika Brzezinksi will present a “Courage in Journalism” award.

Have you ever seen anyone who was more afraid to state an opinion on any subject? Your upper-class culture is utterly mad, and your nation is rapidly dying.

How did we ever survive this long, given our massive dumbness—including our massive “liberal” dumbness? Three decades into a very effective war of disinformation against Social Security, our side has finally lurched into gear, trying to address the problem—and displaying our vast lack of skill at such new undertakings (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/7/10). Meanwhile, we who have endlessly gotten our keisters kicked keep saying how dumb “they” are.

That said, we wanted to return to Dana Milbank’s essay, which broke all established rules.

For decades, your public discourse has been scripted by skillful players—and by their skilled, clownish messaging. We have drowned in ludicrous statements on policy matters; we have drowned in ludicrous statements about targeted public officials. (If we lower the tax rates, we get higher revenues! The Clintons are serial murderers!) And no matter how stupid these messages got, the “press corps” agreed not to notice. Endlessly, Limbaugh got a pass. So did Chris Matthews, during the many years when he worked for plutocrat masters. (No one did more to send Bush to the White House. But for years after that, Joan Walsh had to keep kissing his keister, the better to get on TV!)

Last Sunday, the unimaginable happened! In the Washington Post, Dana Milbank penned a long essay about Glenn Beck, one of our most ludicrous clowns. In detail, he ran through the ludicrous things Beck tends to say. He even did a separate piece, describing one of Beck’s rhetorical techniques (just click here).

This type of piece has simply never been done in the past. It wasn’t done about Limbaugh, Hannity or Jerry Falwell (who pimped the murder claims around). It wasn’t done about Darling Chris, who was so useful to “liberal” business and career models even as he struggled and strained to do what Chairman Jack said. (Somehow, we liberals noticed Rupert Murdoch. Unable to walk and chew gum at one time, we never quite spotted Jack Welch.)

Milbank’s piece isn’t perfect. He leaves out some of the topics and themes Beck pursues—topics and themes which aren’t crazy. (Watching Beck in the past year, we saw many fascinating discussions of Dr. King—many long discussions.) But we were struck by Milbank’s piece because such pieces have never appeared in the past twenty years. In a sane world, this sort of piece would appear all the time, especially given the utter lunacy of the American discourse. But the boys and girls of the “mainstream press” have been well behaved through the years.

We’ve never seen such a piece before. This strange fact defines an age—a brain-dead, plutocratic age from which your nation is dying.

Special report: Surviving Superman!

PART 4—BROCKTON HIGH IS US (permalink): In the wake of Davis Guggenheim’s Waiting for Superman, a generation of pundits have marveled at the way American kids can’t read, write or cipher.

Look who’s talking, we’ve endlessly said.

In fact, American students are doing much better in the past dozen years on our most reliable national tests, the National Assessment of Educational Progress. In reading and math, scores by black kids and Hispanic kids are a great deal higher. (This is one of the best-kept secrets in all of American life.) But will America’s upper-end journalists ever learn to reason or cipher? Consider the way Sam Dillon began a massive, recent report on page one of our great New York Times.

Dillon was praising one of the nation’s biggest high schools, Brockton High of Brockton, Massachusetts. He began with this thrilling, upbeat appraisal of a school which has turned things around:

DILLON (9/28/10): A decade ago, Brockton High School was a case study in failure. Teachers and administrators often voiced the unofficial school motto in hallway chitchat: students have a right to fail if they want. And many of them did—only a quarter of the students passed statewide exams. One in three dropped out.

Then Susan Szachowicz and a handful of fellow teachers decided to take action. They persuaded administrators to let them organize a schoolwide campaign that involved reading and writing lessons into every class in all subjects, including gym.

Their efforts paid off quickly. In 2001 testing, more students passed the state tests after failing the year before than at any other school in Massachusetts. The gains continued. This year and last, Brockton outperformed 90 percent of Massachusetts high schools. And its turnaround is getting new attention in a report, “How High Schools Become Exemplary,” published last month by Ronald F. Ferguson, an economist at Harvard who researches the minority achievement gap.

From that, a reader might even get the impression that Brockton High “outperformed 90 percent of Massachusetts high schools” on this year’s “state tests.” But uh-oh! If readers did get that impression, they had been grossly misled. In fact, Brockton High recorded below-average scores in this year’s statewide testing in both math and reading (“language arts”). Across the state, tenth-graders recorded higher passing rates on both tests than the students at Brockton High did.

Example: Statewide, 75 percent of Massachusetts tenth graders passed the state’s math test this spring. Only 61 percent of Brockton High tenth graders passed. The school came closer in reading (“language arts”), but still didn’t match the state norm. (For Brockton High’s official “report card,” click this.) Why then did Dillon seem to say that Brockton High “outperformed 90 percent of Massachusetts high schools” on this year’s state tests? His readers finally got their answer—but only if they read to paragraph 45 (out of 49), and only if they read his prose with cynicism and exceptional care:

DILLON: Brockton’s performance is not as stellar in math as in English language arts, and the committee has hired an outside consultant to help develop strategies for improving math instruction, Mr. Perkins said.

Dr. Ferguson said Brockton High first “jumped out of the data” for him early last year. He was examining Massachusetts’ 2008 test scores in his office in Cambridge, and noticed that Brockton had done a better job than 90 percent of the state’s 350 high schools helping its students to improve their language arts scores.

D’oh! In fact, Brockton High students had shown more improvement (in language arts scores) than students in 90 percent of state high schools! Presumably, something like that is what Dillon “meant” in his upbeat opening portrait.

(In fact, Ferguson’s report seems to say that Brockton High showed more improvement than 97 percent of state high schools in 2008. For the full report, click here.)

“This year and last, Brockton outperformed 90 percent of Massachusetts high schools.” Was Dillon’s upbeat opening portrait even technically accurate? We’d have to say it was not. In any normal sense of these terms, Brockton High didn’t “outperform 90 percent of Massachusetts high schools” on the state tests this year, although the claim certainly made for a feel-good, front-page portrait. It also made for something else—it made for a nation of misled readers, to the extent that anyone actually cares about a topic like this.

Few readers showed any sign of understanding the facts about Brockton High. At her education site, Joanne Jacobs understood, and stated, the facts. (“In overall performance, Brockton is below average, but much higher than it used to be.”) But elsewhere, confusion reigned. Education writer Dana Goldstein showed no sign of understanding. Did Erica Leipmann understand the real facts at the Huffington Post?

LEIPMANN (9/29/10): After growing weary of devastatingly low test scores, Brockton High School teachers took action to turn the tide for the Massachusetts school.

A group of teachers, who became known as the "restructuring committee," sought to overhaul the school curriculum by adding reading and writing components to every single class.

The New York Times reports within a decade, the school has made incredible strides toward improving students' performance. According to The Times, Brockton is now in the top 10 percent of high performing schools in the state—and featured in a recent Harvard University study entitled "How High Schools Become Exemplary.”

From that, would you know that Brockton High scored below the state average in reading and math this year? But then, people all over the country seemed to be fooled by Dillon’s grossly misleading report—to the extent that anyone actually cares about such a topic. (Liberal journals, and liberal pundits, didn’t comment at all.) In San Francisco, a school board member showed no sign of understanding what she had read. A talk show host seemed to be bamboozled at WGBH, Boston’s PBS station. In the Albany Times Union, a “distinguished teaching professor” seemed to have no clue what he’d read.

Generally, people pulled and reprinted that one pleasing quote. “Brockton outperformed 90 percent of Massachusetts high schools,” these misled New York Times readers said.

Dillon’s report was grossly misleading—a textbook case of journalistic incompetence, malfeasance and/or fraud. In a report which ran 1800 words, he never cited Brockton’s passing rates; he never compared those passing rates to those of the state as a whole. But this is the way your “press corps” and “educational experts” have discussed public schools for at least forty years. Your public discourse is run by clowns—by adult clowns who wonder why our children can’t read, write and cipher better!

Currently, these adult clowns are having large cows about how lousy our schoolteachers are.

In fairness, Brockton High does seem to be an actual success story; its faculty does deserve praise for a decade of successful effort. The school serves a low-income student population; assuming its testing was properly conducted, the school does seem to be getting better results from its tenth-grade students than would be expected, based on the scores they achieved on state tests when they were eighth-graders. (This is the methodology used in the Ferguson study.) According to the Ferguson study, all population groups at the school showed unusual progress from the eighth grade through the tenth grade, especially in language arts. Like Dillon, the Ferguson study describes, in detail, the efforts made by Brockton’s faculty to produce these gains in achievement. In Dillon’s report, this exemplary effort began more than ten years ago. By now, the results are in: Broken down by demographics, all segments of Brockton High’s student body seem to be (slightly) outscoring the state. But because the school is heavily low-income, minority and immigrant, its overall passing rates are lower than those produced by the state as a whole.

Sorry! In any normal sense of the term, Brockton High didn’t “outperform 90 percent of Massachusetts high schools” on this year’s state tests. Overall, its passing rates were substantially below those of the state as a whole. That said, the school really is a success story, assuming its testing has been conducted correctly. Let’s consider this matter two ways:

First, the good news:

On the one hand, Brockton High is us! This big high school’s ongoing success resembles that of the nation as a whole. Across the nation, low-income, black and Hispanic kids have been doing much better in the past dozen years on our most reliable test battery, the National Assessment of Educational Progress. But this profoundly important fact has virtually been banned from the nation’s public discourse. Instead of seeing this basic fact reported, analyzed and discussed, we get the occasional bungled front-page report about some single high school which has made progress.

New York Times readers aren’t allowed to know that this is the general picture of test scores across the land.

Now, the bad news:

Dillon whistles, foot-stomps and cheers about Brockton’s amazing success. He is so eager to tell his heart-warming tale, he grossly misstates elementary facts, misleading a nation of readers, but helping them feel very good in the process. Let’s speculate a bit: How well have Brockton High students performed on an absolute basis—in math, let us say? In the past few weeks, the nation’s pundits have shouted and yelled about how hapless our students are on international measures of science and math—on the 2006 PISA, for instance, which tested 15-year-old students. But uh-oh! In all likelihood, Brockton tenth-graders are scoring right around that level—the level which has been reviled in the press corps in the past month, described as a symbol of failure! (In part, we base that calculation on Massachusetts passing rates on eighth-grade NAEP math tests.) Despite this, these students are featured on the Times front page, hailed as proof of the fact that a big high school can succeed! The package is tied with a pretty bow, with Dillon giving an utterly false impression—the impression that this school has been transformed to such a degree that it has outperformed 90 percent of the high schools in Massachusetts, our highest-performing state.

What is the truth about our schools? One part of the truth is abundantly clear: People like Dillon (and his editors) should have been canned long ago. We live within a very strange culture, in which incompetent adults are hired to tell us how hapless our school children are. In the past few weeks, they have widened their range, attacking our children and our school teachers well. This echoes a decades-old plutocrat script, aimed at dismantling unions.

Brockton High teachers have made major progress. But then, so have teachers all over the nation, although nimrods like Dillon won’t tell.

Can we talk? You will never see a “great debate” about our schools—the “great debate” the high Lady Collins imagined in her column last week. But if we wanted such a debate, we would follow these last few prescriptions. As you may know, we have offered six other prescriptions in our lost two posts:

The liberal world should support black kids: The liberal world quit on black kids long ago; we don’t stop to dirty our hands with such matters. If we want that great debate, even race hustlers like Salon’s Joan Walsh would get their vaunted “liberal journals” into this discussion. Based on past practice, that will occur when the cow jumps over the moon. Liberals are too busy hunting bigots to bore their high-minded readers with the problems faced by black kids, Hispanic kids, immigrants, low-income children.

We should stop flying to Finland: It’s an embarrassment when “education correspondents” fly to Finland to learn the secret of their success. Guess what? There isn’t a school like Brockton High in the whole country of Finland! Unless we’re specifically looking for ways to improve results among middle-class kids, we should make our correspondents and “experts” stop taking these brain-dead junkets.

We should discuss our actual test scores: We know—this was one of the prescriptions we offered in Wednesday’s piece. But this is such a basic point, we decided to list it again. In the past dozen years, test scores are vastly improved on the NAEP. And guess what? Teachers like those at Brockton High have been behind this progress!

What do those improved scores mean? In this country, incompetents like Dillon (and his editors) never mention these test scores! Very few people have ever heard about these signs of progress. Is something “wrong” with those test scores? If so, someone should explain what it is. On the surface, things are improving in our schools. If anyone actually cared about kids, we’d want to find out what it is.

But in truth, no one actually cares about kids within our upper-class aeries. At this point, our upper-end society has reached the point where it runs on nothing but novels. Scribes like Dillon type pretty tales about the occasional school which has “outperformed 90 percent of Massachusetts high schools” (wink, wink); they put this garbage on the front page, misinforming all who go there. In the meantime, they refuse to report the larger story—test scores are up all over the nation, not just at the admirable Brockton High! Keeping that startling fact to themselves, they waddle forth to do what plutocrats do. They trash the nation’s teachers and unions, even as they refuse to report the progress those teachers have wrought.

Trust us: Most teachers don’t know about this progress, so well has the secret been kept.

How empty are the empty vessels presiding over our discourse? Here was the emptiest vessel of all, completing the recent column in which she proclaimed that a “great debate” has begun:

LADY COLLINS (9/30/10): Older teachers tend to respond to calls for education reform with cynicism because they’ve been down this road so many times before. In 1955, a best seller, “Why Johnny Can’t Read,” stunned the country with its description of a 12-year-old who suffered from being “exposed to an ordinary American school.” Since then, the calls for reform have come as regularly as the locusts. Social promotion has been eliminated repeatedly, schools have been made bigger, then smaller.

But dwelling on that won’t get us anywhere. Right now, the public is engaged. The best charter schools are laboratories for new ideas. But the regular public schools are where American education has to be saved. We can do better. Superman hasn’t arrived. But we may be ready to fly.

In her penultimate paragraph, Collins made the one good point of her column, recalling decades of facile clowning about reform in the schools. She didn’t mention the actual score gains recorded in the past dozen years. Most likely, she has never heard that these score gains exist.

God forbid that such a high lady should thumb through such data herself!

(For all NAEP data, just click this. Plan to spend several weeks.)

Collins’ column was a groaner. “The United States now ranks near the bottom of the industrialized countries when it comes to reading,” she said, making a claim which is flatly inaccurate. “Finland, what’s your secret?” the lady then stupidly asked.

She then defended the teachers unions, while making utterly worthless “arguments.” Again: She failed to mention the large score gains those unions have helped engineer.

At the end, she offered us proles some hope, as high ladies are trained to do.

“We may be ready to fly,” she proclaimed, giving us hope for the future. But what should we do to improve our schools?

Go ahead—reread the whole column. This high lady didn’t quite say.