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BROKEN CHARIOT WHEELS OF THE GODS! Teachers knew that something was wrong. Great gods like Joel Klein didn’t: // link // print // previous // next //

An unfair fight: We don’t agree with Kevin Drum this time. But we strongly recommend this post, in which he ponders an obvious problem: Conservatives have a strong, branded message, he says. Progressives and liberals just don’t.

(Kevin’s rumination is drawn Sara Robinson’s New Republic piece, “Building the Progressive Brand.” To read her piece, click this.)

According to Kevin, “our brand is never going to be as strong as theirs;” it’s in the nature of liberalism. We strongly disagree with that view. But we were struck by the way Kevin’s commenters floundered about, looking for simple ways to explain the progressive mission.

For ourselves, we think it’s very easy: The people, not the powerful! You have to explain where things go from there, of course. But that’s the essence of the progressive challenge—and it’s easy to state in a bumper sticker, despite the ballyhooed complexity of our wondrous liberal minds.

Without being checked, the powerful will eat you alive! Doesn’t everyone pretty much know that? But go ahead—read the comments, as Kevin’s readers flounder and flail, trying to explain the nature of the progressive mission.

Kevin is certainly right on one score. Everyone can explain the conservative mission. Why is it so hard to explain ours? We think that’s fairly easy too. Let’s talk about liberal leadership:

Uh-oh! Sadly, the vast bulk of our “liberal leaders” come from the same high classes as the conservative elite. They earn big money; they eat in good restaurants. They gained from Bush’s tax cuts.

They may prefer that liberal policies win, but they don’t have huge incentives to fight. By way of contrast, the people who fuel the conservative world stand to gain millions—sometimes, billions—when conservative policies prevail. They fight very hard, and they’ve “messaged” for decades, often dishonestly. They have a great deal at stake.

Why are your “leaders” so feckless, so slow to anger? Why have they failed to produce real messaging? Why have they generally failed to fight back against decades of disinformation and propaganda?

Isn’t it fairly obvious? They too live on high plateaus. When the other side wages its war on Social Security (let us say), they themselves have almost nothing at stake. In their lazy reactions, this shows.

Last week, in a bit of comical timing, a liberal began to fight back against a decades-long disinformation campaign (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/7/10). Question: Why haven’t “liberal leaders” fought back before this?

Liberals, please! Isn’t it blindingly obvious?

The soul of a liberal leader: We don’t think much of Lawrence O’Donnell, but he’s a classic “liberal leader.” He’s from Hollywood; he has a movie star wife. When his liberal TV show started last month, his first big “get” was Levi Johnston. Last night, acting like a child who pulls wings off flies, he interviewed Alvin Greene. O’Donnell is a classic embarrassment:

O’DONNELL (10/11/10): [Jim] DeMint is up for re-election and the man opposing him may be the least likely candidate to win this November.

Alvin Greene shocked the Democratic Party when he won the primary over a long-time Democratic activist with 59 percent of the vote, even though Greene never had one campaign event. Alvin Greene is unemployed, lives with his parents, and has now been indicted on felony charges for showing pornography to a South Carolina college student, something his lawyer called flirting.

The state of South Carolina even investigated where he got the $10,000 filing fee and found that, indeed, it came from money he saved after he left the Air Force as he had said.

Joining me now, the Democratic nominee for Senate from South Carolina, Alvin Greene. Alvin Greene, thanks for joining us tonight.

GREENE: Good evening.

O’DONNELL: There’s a first question that all Senate candidates have to answer this year. And that is, of course, are you a witch?

GREENE: No. First, I want to remind everyone that DeMint started the recession.

O’DONNELL: There you go, you’re on your talking points, not a witch and DeMint started the recession. All right.

Now, your nickname in high school, I’m told, was “Turtle.” Does that tell us—and where did that come from? And does that tell us anything about how this race might end up?

GREENE: Look, DeMint started the recession, DeMint is responsible for the recession. And I’m the best candidate that defines where we at right now in this country.

O’DONNELL: Now, I know people tell you, you know, no matter what the question is: just do your talking points and all that sort of stuff. But seriously, Alvin, your nickname, “Turtle,” where did that come from?

Their side has messaged hard for decades. Your side has Lawrence O’Donnell, who recites the other side’s talking points regarding Social Security (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/2/10) and engages in this kind of conduct.

Gaze on the soul of your “liberal leadership.” How hard is this pattern to grasp?

Special report: Matt Miller’s strange tale!

INTERLUDE—BROKEN CHARIOT WHEELS OF THE GODS (permalink): We the people are easily scripted, even about important matters. Consider an early comment to Ross Douthat’s pitiful column about public school “reform.”

Douthat’s know-nothing column appeared in yesterday’s New York Times.

Douthat is a callow lad, and he doesn’t know squat about public schools. He opened his piece with a tangy critique. Davis Guggenheim’s new film, Waiting for Superman, is “manipulative, simplistic,” he said.

Then, Douthat offered a manipulative, simplistic account of what this “must-see” film is about. Privileged children—and the gods—will often behave in this manner:

DOUTHAT (10/11/10): In this fall’s must-see documentary, “Waiting for ‘Superman,’ ” Davis Guggenheim offers a critique of America’s public school bureaucracy that’s manipulative, simplistic and more than a little bit utopian.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Guggenheim’s cause, the plight of children trapped in failing schools with lousy, union-protected teachers, is important enough to make his overzealousness forgivable. And his prescription—more accountability for teachers and bureaucrats, and more choices for parents and kids—deserves all the support his film promises to win for it.

It’s easy for the callow young children of Harvard to trash a nation of teachers that way. In this case, Douthat seems eager to show us that he too has become one of the gods—one of the unfeeling children of Zeus, who toss their thunderbolts from the skies even when they have no idea what they are talking about.

Douthat’s column is utterly clueless, profoundly inane. (For a soul-draining excerpt, see below.) It’s sad to see the work of such children, even as they ask why younger children can’t read, write or reason real well.

To all appearances, Douthat doesn’t know his asp from his A-Rod when it comes to the public schools. But lord god of hosts, how easy it is for the gods to script us, the people! In this, the sixth comment to Douthat’s column, a Minnesotan offers a fond recollection of a brighter day:

MR TOM: When American education was cooking, and we had the best system in the world, it was because public schools were adequately funded, and all Americans perceived the need to have all our children educated, since it was the key to both individual and societal prosperity.

Over the years, basic support for public education has dwindled, both on the individual and societal levels.

For unknown reasons, this reader thinks there was a day when “American education was cooking, and we had the best system in the world.” He even thinks he knows the secret of that lost success. Back in this age, “public schools were adequately funded, and all Americans perceived the need to have all our children educated.”

We don’t have the slightest idea what era this reader describes. Is he recalling the golden age when Jonathan Kozol’s fourth graders were whipped in the basement of their Boston school—“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?” Does this reader know how much higher black kids are scoring today, as opposed to that golden age, when everyone “perceived the need to have all our children educated?”

In his own state, test scores for black kids are much improved over the past dozen years on the NAEP, our most reliable testing program. Do you think Douthat’s reader knows that?

We have no idea what this reader could mean. But he nicely echoes the propaganda which rained down from the corporate hacks at NBC News in recent weeks. “Forty years ago, American students were first,” Rehema Ellis vaguely and stupidly claimed, speaking on the September 26 NBC Nightly News. Two weeks later, Mr. Tom was reciting the same perfect pap, having read an insultingly simplistic column written by a manipulative child who seems to have no earthly idea what he’s talking about.

So it goes as America’s gods set out to reorder the schools.

It’s always stunning to see how far the Douthats will go—boldly proclaiming on serious topics about which they seem to know nothing. But then, this problem afflicts finer people than Douthat; it also drives big, powerful players at the very top of our world. When we see such cavalier conduct, we must ask: Are these life-forms real human beings, or are we dealing here with the gods? Have they arrived on spaceships—on chariots from Mars? Do they just toy with our planet?

This brings us to Jennifer Medina’s lengthy, brutal news report on the front page of yesterday’s Times.

Forget Douthat and his clueless reader. Medina wrote a long, embarrassing piece about a pair of truly powerful players: Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein, long-time lords of the New York City schools. Her piece concerns the recent admission by the state of New York that statewide testing has been a fraud—that the program has generated inflated test scores for an undisclosed number of years. The Douthats will trash the teachers well, skillfully kicking down at their lessers. But in these, her opening paragraphs, Medina starts to describe the malfeasance of gods like Bloomberg and Klein, who kept boasting about rising test scores long after they should have known that something was wrong with the program:

MEDINA (10/11/10): When New York State made its standardized English and math tests tougher to pass this year, causing proficiency rates to plummet, it said it was relying on a new analysis showing that the tests had become too easy and that score inflation was rampant.

But evidence had been mounting for some time that the state’s tests, which have formed the basis of almost every school reform effort of the past decade, had serious flaws.

The fast rise and even faster fall of New York’s passing rates resulted from the effect of policies, decisions and missed red flags that stretched back more than 10 years and were laid out in correspondence and in interviews with city and state education officials, administrators and testing experts.

The process involved direct warnings from experts that went unheeded by the state, and a city administration that trumpeted gains in student performance despite its own reservations about how reliably the test gauged future student success.

In our view, Medina is much too kind in her treatment of the billionaire mayor and his inexperienced hireling. But as Medina reports, red flags had been waving for years about apparent problems with New York’s statewide testing. And as you will see if you read Medina: It was often teachers, and former teachers, who had the smarts to see that something seemed to be wrong.

Journalistic gods—people like Douthat—were, as usual, clueless

Who waved the red flags to which Medina refers? Complaints came from peons like Betty Rosa, in 2009. Bloomberg and Klein still didn’t know—or were still choosing not to say:

MEDINA: Just before the results were released, a member of the Regents named Betty Rosa called Ms. Tisch, who had recently become chancellor [of the state board of Regents].

Ms. Rosa, who had been a teacher, principal and superintendent in the Bronx for nearly three decades, said the unprecedented high scores simply seemed too good to be true. She suggested the unthinkable: the scores were so unbelievable, she said, that the state should not publicly release them.

“The question was really are we telling the public the truth,” Ms. Rosa said in a recent interview. Ms. Tisch, she said, relayed that she, too, found the scores suspicious, but that it would be impossible to withhold them. “It was like a train that was already in motion and no way to stop it,” Ms. Rosa said.

The English test scores showed 69 percent of city students passing. Mr. Bloomberg called the results “nothing short of amazing and exactly what this country needs.”

A former teacher—from the Bronx!—understood the facts and the ethics. By way of contrast, Bloomberg, the billionaire lord god of mayors, just kept tooting the horn of the spaceship on which he’d descended to earth.

That passage records events from 2009, but some teachers had sounded the warning years earlier. Way back in 2005, teachers and principals were telling reporters that the statewide tests had gotten easier—that this might explain the jump in New York City’s test scores. (For one of our own reports on this matter, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/6/05. Note the year—2005!) But the mayor and his chancellor just kept praising their own vast greatness, even as Douthat’s worthless teachers correctly saw what was wrong. And sure enough! Gail Collins, head of the Times editorial board, was utterly clueless about these events—and condescending to those who were right! Earlier that year, the high lady had published an editorial. She lavished praised on her godly mayor and rolled her eyes at the worthless proles, who of course were right:

NEW YORK TIMES EDITORIAL (6/6/05): Kudos for the Education Mayor

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has asked voters time and again to judge him on how well he handles the schools, has a lot to smile about these days. Last month, the city learned that record numbers of fourth graders met the reading and writing standards laid out by the State Board of Regents. This encouraging news has now been buttressed by results showing strong gains on the city's own math and reading tests for grades three, five, six and seven. This means that for the first time in nearly 15 years, at least half of New York's elementary and middle-school students performed at or above grade level in reading and math.

The scores appear to vindicate Mr. Bloomberg's policy of requiring students to meet new standards for promotion or be held back.


Skeptics, including Mr. Bloomberg's political opponents, of course rushed to challenge the results, suggesting that the test was too easy or that teachers spent too much time on test preparation. And it is indeed the case that city test scores rise and fall and rise again over time. But the latest results suggest that the schools are making progress—and that Mr. Bloomberg has every right to take a bow.

Clueless again—and condescending toward those who did understand. The high lady rolled her eyes at the “skeptics” (including those teachers). She heaped praise on her sovereign liege—her billionaire mayor, who was wrong.

Here at THE HOWLER, we taught in Baltimore’s schools for about a dozen years. Based in part on that experience, we will only tell you this: For many people, it’s hard to grasp how utterly clueless our rulers are when it comes to the public schools. This includes our billionaire mayors and our empty-brained upper-end journalists; it even includes our “educational experts,” who endlessly play the Potemkin role as scams unfold all around. Let us say it again: For most people, it’s hard to grasp how clueless they are, given the high positions from which they toss their bolts. Young Douthat doesn’t know reform from his own rear end, as you can see from the excerpt below. But then again, neither did the high lady Collins. Neither did the clueless mayor or his tough-talking chancellor. (Unless Bloomberg and Klein were simply dissembling—lying.)

Some teachers knew what was going on; we were talking about it here. But having descended from flaming chariots, the gods plowed dumbly forward.

This morning, Douthat pimps an educational expert, making a truly clownish prescription for the public schools (see below). So it goes when puzzling life forms seize control of the public discussion. That said:

Yesterday, we asked an obvious question: Is Matt Miller right off the (space)ship? Would a human reason the way he did, discussing the schools in Sunday’s Post? Tomorrow, we’ll return to Miller’s piece. But today, we deferred to two larger gods. Their glittering names are Bloomberg and Klein. Question: Are they truly human?

Go ahead! Read Medina’s piece, complete with many embarrassing quotations from this billionaire mayor. You will see an unfortunate fact: Our leaders are often utterly clueless—but they’re prepared to proceed.

In our view, Medina was much too kind to Bloomberg and Klein. (More on her report in the future.) But good lord, how lovely the timing was! One day before Medina’s report, the clueless Klein loaned his name to a fiery “manifesto;” it accompanied Miller’s piece in Sunday’s Washington Post. In his manifesto, Klein demanded more from our teachers. Lady Rhee was co-author, of course.

(Between the two of them, Klein and Rhee have spent all of three years teaching in the public schools. Wendy Kopp, another great god, never spent a day in the schools.)

Tomorrow, we’ll return to Miller, asking if he just got off the ship. Your rulers love to declaim about schools. But when they reason as Miller did, an obvious question comes to mind:

They arrive in flaming ships. But are these life-forms human?

You really can’t get weirder: You can’t get weirder—or dumber—than Douthat got in yesterday’s clueless column. Our Harvard boy was very impressed with something he had read in a journal. Our question: How does a youngster even get into college when he’s willing to reason like this? Full speed ahead with reform, our boy said—even though these reforms don’t work

DOUTHAT: Overpromising leads inevitably to disappointment. When it comes to raising test scores, the grail of most reformers, school choice’s record is still ambiguous. For every charter school success story like the Harlem Children’s Zone and the KIPP network—both touted in Guggenheim’s documentary—there’s a charter school where scores are worse than the public school status quo. The same is true for vouchers and merit pay: the jury is still out on whether either policy consistently raises academic performance.

This doesn’t mean that school choice doesn’t work, Hess argues. It just means that the benefits are often more modest and incremental than many reformers want to think. They can be measured in money saved (both charter and private schools usually spend much less per pupil than their public competitors), in improved graduation rates, and in higher parental and student satisfaction. But they don’t always show up in test scores.

No really—that’s what he wrote! According to Douthat, the various “reforms” he comes to praise produce a wide range of benefits; they just don’t “consistently raise academic performance!” For every school where scores go up, there’s one where scores are worse!

On balance, children can’t read or do math better—but that doesn’t mean that reform has failed! Money is saved along the way! Parents express satisfaction!

(Douthat showed no sign of knowing that test scores are substantially improved, among all major groups, in the past dozen years on the NAEP. But then, he seems to know nothing about public schools expect what he stumbled upon in this study.)

According to Douthat, his preferred reforms don’t exactly improve reading and math—but we should pursue them, very hard, all the same! Yes, that’s what this youngster wrote.

Question: Is such writing human?