Daily Howler logo
CLUELESSNESS OF THE GODS! Klein and Rhee penned a manifesto. A Post reader took it apart: // link // print // previous // next //
THURSDAY, OCTOBER 14, 2010

Your political culture is dying or dead and seems to be insane: Digby was right on the money in yesterday’s post about our political pseudo-discussions. If you watch our “opinion leaders” discuss public issues, you are watching the work of a world which seems to have gone insane:

DIGBY (10/13/10): The world is going to hell in a hand-basket and Andrea Mitchell is obsessing over the fact that Jerry Brown's staffer used the word whore and Brown hasn't groveled to her satisfaction. She's brought it up in every segment this morning, she and Chris Cillizza rubbing their hands together gleefully at the prospect of the arrogant plutocrat Meg Whitman winning because she was victimized by some unknown staffer who said a bad word. Cillizza offered the sage advice that a politician must always sincerely apologize to the person leaving no doubt as to his deeply felt personal contrition. (Of course, in the real world of politics that's total bullshit, but never let that stop the schoolmarms from issuing their useless directives.)

Mitchell also, incidentally, allowed Condi Rice to lie about it, saying that Brown took too long to apologize and then did it only "grudgingly" and "defiantly." The truth is that his campaign apologized immediately and Brown apologized again in the debate last night. Unfortunately, once you get into the apology game, the Village schoolmarms are never satisfied, even if you publicly flagellate yourself with a cat-o-nine-tails.

There’s more there, but you get the picture. Meanwhile, this portrait of Mitchell’s exchange with Rice perfectly captures Chris Matthews’ unending conduct concerning Richard Blumenthal. Last spring, Blumenthal promptly and fully apologized, many times, for the fact that, on perhaps two occasions, he seemed to say that he served in Vietnam. To this day, Matthews persistently plays the angry objector about this deeply disturbing misconduct. If you watch Matthews on Hardball, you may think that Blumenthal still hasn’t been willing to say that he’s sorry. Routinely, Joan Walsh sits silently by, letting Chris peddle this pap.

(Psychiatric explanation: Chris comes from that group of Vietnam avoiders—he avoided the draft through the Peace Corps—who have spent the past twenty years atoning on cable for their misconduct. The first such atonement was earned in 1999 and 2000, as these childish, under-grown ninnies received absolution from Saint John McCain in exchange for their fawning endorsements. In effect, the Straight Talk Express was a Vietnam Fantasy Camp—and a confessional—for these still-immature draft-avoiders.)

Truly, our opinion leaders seem insane in the way they approach public issues. “The world is going to hell in a hand-basket,” but every major political campaign seems to turn on some inane, feigned offense. Liberals are playing this mindless game too; yesterday, Steve Benen played the fool in several posts, with commenters pushing back at his feigned outrage. (Good for them! For the day’s first example, click here. For the second example, click this.) Our national IQ is slipping beneath the waves, in truly remarkable fashion.

This phenomenon dates back decades, of course, to the days of the Clinton murders and the Gore imagined misstatements. (Earlier, pundits had a different concern: Why didn’t Michael Dukakis simply punch out Bernie Shaw?) But have we ever been this dumb? Watching Christine O’Donnell debate Chris Coons last night, we were struck by how sensible a person like O’Donnell can seem, given our brain-dead political norms, if she has been prepared in a few modest ways. O’Donnell tossed off familiar claims about “supporting big government,” “raising taxes” and “supporting the special interests” (along with a few specialized inanities about having once been a “bearded Marxist”). But our discourse has been so dumb for so long, it truly sounded, by American norms, like she was making real statements.

We awoke this morning to Willie Geist, who was discussing one of these matters of feigned outrage. (We can’t remember which one. We were struck by the fact that he was already deep into such nonsense by 5:40, just ten minutes into his program.) A second-generation TV inanity, Geist takes the emptiness to new places in his break-of-day, drivel-based program.

Then too, there are the things we won’t discuss. We read Kevin Drum with interest each day. We were very much struck by yesterday’s post, “Schools and Poverty.” For our money, the discussion Kevin attempted to further is pretty pointless on its own merits. But we were especially struck by this account of attempts at school reform:

DRUM (10/13/10): I'm going to get the ed people mad at me again—and I guess I'll add the poverty people too this time—but I continue to think that the biggest problem here is simply that no one has any really compelling answers. Movies like Waiting for Superman (which I haven't seen), along with an endless stream of credulous punditry, keep suggesting that the answers are out there if only we'll fund them and take them seriously. But they aren't. Charter schools are great, but they're no panacea. (Not yet, anyway. Maybe someday after we figure out which ones work.) High-stakes testing might be a necessary evil, but it hasn't proven to have any long-term value yet either. Etc. You can go down the list of every ed reform ever touted, and they either can't scale up, turn out to have ambiguous results when proper studies are done, or simply wash out over time.

That account appears at the end of a nine-year period in which black fourth-graders gained 19 points in math on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, “the gold standard of American testing.” Hispanic fourth-graders also gained 19 points in that nine-year period. By total happenstance, Kevin was the first major writer we ever saw who offered the standard rule of thumb for the NAEP, a rule of thumb which is widely voiced (especially when it points to gloomy conclusions): Ten points on the NAEP is routinely said to equal one academic year. (For ourselves, we regard this as a very rough rule of thumb. But it does provide a very rough metric with which to approach those score gains.)

NAEP scores for black kids and Hispanic kids are way up, in reading and math, in the past dozen years. No one has ever had an incentive to cheat on this testing program (though that has now started to change). But so what? Everyone agrees to avoid discussing these large score gains, even as we ring our hands about school reform and savage America’s teachers, along with their infernal unions. We think we understand Kevin’s view of this matter; a few months ago, he said those score gains don’t mean all that much because they haven’t been matched in NAEP testing at the 17-year-old level. (In that sense, they might be said to “wash out over time,” although the kids recording the higher scores haven’t turned 17 yet.) That said, the score gains at earlier ages are very large—and yet, we all agree to ignore them, seeming to find them unworthy of exploration. In comments, none of Kevin’s readers raised this objection to his gloomy presentation. We’ll guess that those readers have never heard about those large score gains.

Why are those test scores up so much? We can’t tell you, though we’d love to find out. (Something seems to be working!) But the refusal to even mention these data is a second form of insanity—the flip side to the mindless discussions exhibited all over cable. For ourselves, we’ll have to say we think it’s malicious and ugly that these data keep being suppressed, even by people who know about them. Malicious, ugly, unfeeling, cruel—and a sign of a dying culture, a culture that’s going insane.

Why are those test scores way up in the past dozen years? We don’t know, and no one seems to care. (Kevin’s readers don’t seem to have heard—but neither has anyone else.) Meanwhile, on Andrea Mitchell’s channel, we’re constantly told how bad America’s teachers are—and we’re told about the massive need to break their infernal unions. Well—the corporate types have staged these discussions. The “progressives” have left the topic alone. (Who gives a fig about black kids?)

This is a world which the plutocrats rule. It’s vicious, insane and quite ugly.

Special report: Matt Miller’s strange tale!

PART 3—CLUELESSNESS OF THE GODS (permalink): Is anyone more clueless than our gods of “education reform?” In this case, we refer to Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee, the most famous players who loaned their names to this pompous, know-nothing “manifesto” in Sunday’s Washington Post.

The “manifesto” littered page one of the Post’s “Outlook” section. About a dozen other superintendents placed their names on the screed.

Only gods like Rhee and Klein would dream of pimping such drivel. Only the Post would publish such piffle under that glorified heading. That said, the “manifesto” appeared at the top of page one, positioned next to Matt Miller’s plea for more teachers with good college grades.

Oh, yeah—that’s really the problem! When it comes to the public schools, Miller strikes us as rather clueless too.

To all appearances, Miller doesn’t know much about public schools (except that he likes to proclaim on the subject). But then again, to all appearances, neither do Klein and Rhee! We know, we know: Denial centers scream out in the brain, insisting that this can’t be the case. After all, Klein and Rhee are famous superintendents—so potent that they even got themselves titled as “chancellors.” (Rhee just resigned from her post as head of the Washington DC public schools. Klein should resign from his post in New York, given Jennifer Medina’s report about his years of malfeasance as head of that city’s schools. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/12/10.)

Rhee and Klein are gods of reform. What was in their “manifesto?” As usual, the lofty pair were caterwauling about those meddlesome teachers! “Right now, across the country, kids are stuck in failing schools, just waiting for us to do something,” they wrote. And just like that, the gods let us know who has been causing this problem:

KLEIN AND RHEE (10/10/10): So, where do we start? With the basics. As President Obama has emphasized, the single most important factor determining whether students succeed in school is not the color of their skin or their ZIP code or even their parents' income—it is the quality of their teacher.

[…]

A 7-year-old girl won't make it to college someday because her teacher has two decades of experience or a master's degree—she will make it to college if her teacher is effective and engaging and compels her to reach for success. By contrast, a poorly performing teacher can hold back hundreds, maybe thousands, of students over the course of a career. Each day that we ignore this reality is precious time lost for children preparing for the challenges of adulthood.

Klein and Rhee chose to start with “the basics.” This of course meant that they chose to start with some good solid teacher-bashing. They didn’t start with instructional questions, which others might include in “the basics.” They didn’t start with questions of curriculum, or textbooks, or instructional practice—topics on which they’ve never shown much sign of having real ideas. As always, they started with good solid teacher-bashing—and with a word of warning:

A poorly performing teacher can hold back thousands of students! But might we add a second point? A poorly performing “chancellor” can do more harm than that!

Such thoughts don’t occur to gods like these—to gods who kick down, not up. But in their overwrought “manifesto,” Klein and Rhee made a rare mistake—they mentioned a basic instructional problem which does occur in the schools. Neither one of these godly creatures has ever shown the slightest sign of having ideas about “basics” like that. And sure enough: Their cluelessness rang out loud and clear when they tried to address this matter.

Klein had no background in schools, you see, before he accepted his post in New York. Rhee spent only three years in the classroom. (After that, she spent ten more years seeming to lie about her alleged record.) And alas! When people have spent so little time seeing how classrooms actually work, it’s no surprise when they lack ideas about ways to improve instruction. Result? Instead of offering real suggestions about the way instruction might work, Klein and Rhee typically spend their time berating and threatening teachers.

We’ll threaten the teachers, these great gods proclaim. They’ll have to figure it out!

In their manifesto, what did Rhee and Klein say about the workings of actual classrooms? Omigod! In the following passage, they describe an actual problem—a major challenge in low-income classrooms. Indeed, in our experience, this passage goes right to the heart of the most basic instructional problem confronting low-income schools:

KLEIN AND RHEE: We need the best teacher for every child, and the best principal for every school. Of course, we must also do a better job of providing meaningful training for teachers who seek to improve, but let's stop pretending that everyone who goes into the classroom has the ability and temperament to lift our children to excellence.

Even the best teachers—those who possess such skills—face stiff challenges in meeting the diverse needs of their students. A single elementary- or middle-school classroom can contain, for instance, students who read on two or three different grade levels, and that range grows even wider as students move into high school. Is it reasonable to expect a teacher to address all the needs of 25 or 30 students when some are reading on a fourth-grade level and others are ready for Tolstoy?

We were amazed to read the highlighted passage. In our experience, it goes to the heart of the greatest problem confronting teachers in low-income schools. A fifth-grade teacher may well have kids who are reading on three or four different levels. The same may be true of their math performance.

What is that teacher supposed to do? How do you teach such a varied group?

In what follows, we show the full answer offered by these gods of reform. Warning! Prepare to avert your gaze! The highlighted answer is an embarrassment—a jumble of words from two gods of “reform” who don’t know squadoosh about schoolrooms:

KLEIN AND RHEE: Even the best teachers…face stiff challenges in meeting the diverse needs of their students. A single elementary- or middle-school classroom can contain, for instance, students who read on two or three different grade levels, and that range grows even wider as students move into high school. Is it reasonable to expect a teacher to address all the needs of 25 or 30 students when some are reading on a fourth-grade level and others are ready for Tolstoy? We must equip educators with the best technology available to make instruction more effective and efficient. By better using technology to collect data on student learning and shape individualized instruction, we can help transform our classrooms and lessen the burden on teachers' time.

How should we help teachers whose students are reading on three or four different levels? Sorry, Charlie! Klein and Rhee don’t have the slightest idea!

What should we do for urban teachers confronted by that dilemma? From our experience, we’d say the following:

We need to give them instructional programs designed for kids on many levels. We need to give them readable textbooks, written on various reading levels. We need to fill their classrooms with recreational reading materials, suitable for all levels of readers. We need to have textbook programs which are pre-designed for schools with kids on a wide variety of levels. We need textbooks and instructional programs designed for fifth-graders who may be sixth-grade in age, but who are doing math on the third-grade level.

We need kindergarten programs designed for kids who may be far “behind” on their first day of school.

(We need to explain how our ballyhooed “standards” work. If fifth-grade kids are doing math on various levels, should they all be taught the same “fifth-grade math?” What kind of sense could that possibly make? Is that how our state “standards” work?)

These things must be done on the chancellor’s level. Teachers, even those with good college grades, can’t do these things by themselves. But Klein and Rhee have never shown any sign of knowing such things. Did we mention that Klein never taught at all—that Rhee spent all of three years in the classroom? Understandably, such people typically won’t have a clue about the problems confronting our schools.

And so, they do the one thing they know—they name-call and threaten their teachers! They assume the failures of their systems must reflect a lack of effort by these lazy proles.

Go ahead—read Monday’s report by Medina to see the way Klein boasted and dissembled his way through the past decade. When you’re through, tell us that he shouldn’t be following his associate right out the door. But before you do so, please review a letter to the Washington Post—a letter from a guidance counselor at a Virginia high school. (We’ve googled around a bit.) Like us, the writer was struck by the consummate piffle the two gods wrote in the passage we’ve quoted—the passage in which they tried to discuss a real problem in our real schools.

Sorry: This letter-writer knows more about schools than Rhee and Klein could figure out in a year. In this letter, you see the reaction of a bright person who actually knows about schools:

LETTER TO THE WASHINGTON POST (10/13/10): I found one section of the manifesto confusing. The writers acknowledged that it is difficult to teach a class where the students have widely divergent intellectual skills, and they asked whether it was reasonable to expect a teacher to adequately address the needs of students who read at very different levels.

Their answer? Use technology better and gather data. What does this mean? Maybe it means put more kids on computers. But to do what? To work on individualized lessons?

Maybe it means teachers should collect data about student performance. But to what end? With what free time?

Rather than suggesting concrete solutions to the problem of teaching children with different needs—which may or may not involve technology—the manifesto suggested we should figure the problem out someday soon. It seemed a very pat and shallow non-answer to a genuine problem.

A— H—, Washington

Quite correctly, the writer noted that Klein and Rhee’s jumble of words “seemed a very pat and shallow non-answer.” She noted the bafflegab nature of their very unclear prose. (How well would they do on a state English test?) She understood that “solutions to the problem of teaching children” who read at very different levels “may not involve technology.” (These solutions may involve better textbooks and better curriculum planning.) In our view, she saw to the soul of these great pretenders: She saw that they don’t have a solution to the problem they limned, that they are just suggesting that someone else “should figure the problem out.”

Manifestly, this letter-writer knows much more than Klein does about public schools. By the way: That bafflegab from Rhee and Klein wasn’t a hurried, clumsy response to an unexpected question. This was the best the gods could do with a topic of their own selection, in a passage intended to show that they know how tough things can be in the schools.

This letter-writer was polite, a skill one may learn in the public schools. But might we paraphrase what she said:

The people who penned that jumble of words didn’t know their keisters from their clip boards when it comes to the most basic questions about what goes on in the schools.

The writer is smarter than Rhee and Klein. She knows much more about public schools. She knew a non-answer when she saw one.

She could see that Rhee and Klein don’t know what they’re talking about.

We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: For most people, it’s hard to grasp how utterly clueless our “educational experts” are. When it comes to the most basic issues of classroom instruction, they rarely show the slightest sign of knowing whereof they speak.

They have very few real ideas for their schools. They don’t know squat about instruction. And so, they simply threaten the teachers. Their strategy seems to be this: The teachers they insult and threaten “should figure the problem out someday soon.”

Tomorrow, back to that recent ETS study, written by another “educational expert” who didn’t seem to know all that much about schools (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/27/10). It’s hard for most people to understand how lacking our “experts” actually are. They sit on their thrones, and preen like gods—and don’t know squadoosh about schools.

Tomorrow—part 4: Caution! Educational expert at work! (Where did the progress come from?)