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CLOWNS FOR RHEE! The Post continues to clown for Rhee. When did our culture go wrong? // link // print // previous // next //
MONDAY, OCTOBER 18, 2010

Gender-nut challenges Mean Girls: The New York Times flew Maureen Dowd to Las Vegas so she could hand you this pap:

DOWD (10/17/10): As I sat above the Hoover Dam under the broiling sun, I was getting jittery.

There was Gov. Jan Brewer of Arizona, speaking at the dedication of a bridge linking Arizona and Nevada 890 feet above the Colorado River.

As the politicians droned on and my Irish skin turned toasty brown, I worried that Governor Brewer might make a citizen’s arrest and I would have to run for my life across the desert. She has, after all, declared open season on anyone with a suspicious skin tone in her state.

We are in the era of the Republican Mean Girls, grown-up versions of those teenage tormentors who would steal your boyfriend, spray-paint your locker and, just for good measure, spread rumors that you were pregnant.

Trust us: Dowd’s “Irish skin” didn’t turn brown under that broiling sun. We Irish are famous for the fact that our skin turns red in such settings. But Dowd was eager to peddle a tale about the way a certain “Republican Mean Girl” has “declared open season on anyone with a suspicious skin tone.” The suspicious skin tone in question is brown, so Dowd had to fib just a bit.

They flew this nut to Las Vegas for that? It was a long way to go for a joke.

We’ll discuss Dowd’s racial assertion a bit more in the next few days, linking it to similar plays by Frank Rich and Digby (and others, including Laura Flanders and Rebecca Traister). For today, let’s limit ourselves to the basic nonsense which lay at the heart of Dowd’s piece. As Dowd continued, she defined the offending behavior of these disturbing Republican Mean Girls. Our question: Has any columnist ever painted such a detailed self-portrait?

DOWD (continuing directly): These women—Jan, Meg, Carly, Sharron, Linda, Michele, Queen Bee Sarah and sweet wannabe Christine—have co-opted and ratcheted up the disgust with the status quo that originally buoyed Barack Obama. Whether they’re mistreating the help or belittling the president’s manhood, making snide comments about a rival’s hair or ripping an opponent for spending money on a men’s fashion show, the Mean Girls have replaced Hope with Spite and Cool with Cold. They are the ideal nihilistic cheerleaders for an angry electorate.

According to Dowd, these “Mean Girls” have belittled the president’s manhood. They’ve made snide comments about a rival’s hair; they have even ripped an opponent for spending money on a men’s fashion show!

It’s hard to think of a more perfect listing of the charges against Dowd herself.

In the past decade, Dowd has relentlessly “belittled the manhood” of a long string of Democratic pols. (Needless to say, this includes “Obambi,” the “diffident debutante” who reminded Dowd of Scarlett O’Hara. Al Gore was “so feminized he was practically lactating.”) She has made endless snide remarks about various major pols’ hair. (Endlessly, John Edwards was ridiculed as “the Breck Girl.” She wrote at least seven columns which revolved around Gore’s bald spot.) And no fashion show ever got more play than Gore’s alleged switch to earth tones, an invented theme Dowd was happy to pimp, often in the columns where she imagined Gore fussing about The Spot as he looked into a mirror.

A culture which tolerates Maureen Dowd is a culture which has ceased to be sane. Your culture awarded this nut-case its Pulitzer Prize, in 1999.

After that, the sickness got worse. This weekend, Dowd was upset with some very Mean Girls—girls who were stealing her plays.

More on that race claim tomorrow. File under: “How Democrats lose.”

CLOWNS FOR RHEE (permalink): Michelle Rhee is going out much the way she came in. She is baldly dissembling about her achievements, with the express written consent of the Washington Post.

As we watch this charade play out, we can’t help asking two questions: Was our country ever smart and honest enough to address its societal problems? If so, what has gone wrong?

Let’s start with Rhee, sounding off about her own greatness in yesterday’s “Outlook” section. For the second straight Sunday, Outlook pushed school reform issues, narrowly construed, to the top of its front page. Yesterday, there was Rhee—with her patron, Mayor Fenty—telling the world about the vast greatness of her reign in DC.

These passages appeared at the top of the Outlook section’s front page. Rhee’s claims seem indefensible—almost certainly wrong. Did the Post know how shaky this is?

FENTY AND RHEE (10/17/10): Since June 12, 2007, we have had the honor and privilege of working with the students and families of this city as the first mayor and chancellor to lead the District of Columbia Public Schools under mayoral control. It was with heavy hearts but also optimism for the future that we announced Wednesday our mutual agreement with D.C. Council Chairman Vincent Gray: It is time for us to step aside and time for the city to move forward with new leadership for our schools.

[…]

We've made tremendous strides. On the nation's gold standard, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, we've gone from being the worst-performing school district in the country to a force of 46,000 children who lead the nation in gains—with some of the greatest advances coming from our students of color, students receiving special-education services and students formally learning the English language for the first time.

Rhee was approved as DC schools chief in July 2007. Her first school year was the one which began in September 2007; before her recent resignation, she headed the District’s schools for three full years. She brought real strengths to this post—but her claims of massive success seem to be simply inaccurate. Without question, Washington was a very poorly-performing school system when Rhee and Fenty took its reigns. But it almost certainly wasn’t the nation’s “worst-performing school district”—and there’s no way to make such a judgment from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (the NAEP), which includes a limited number of urban school systems in its (very valuable) Trial Urban District Assessment.

(To review that study’s reading data, click here. For its math data, just click this.)

Meanwhile, has Washington “led the nation in gains” since Rhee took control of its schools? Again, the NAEP provides only limited data; it doesn’t review all the nation’s school systems. But even judging from those data, that statement seems blatantly false.

As we noted in 2007, Rhee entered Washington trailing an apparent ten-year lie about her alleged success as a classroom teacher (link below). She leaves the city in much the same way—with the Washington Post enabling her misstatements, just as it did when she arrived from New York, as a darling of the nation’s clique of loud, but rather incompetent, “educational reformers.”

The Post disgraces itself when it peddles this poop. Let’s look at Rhee and Fenty’s recent claims in turn:

The worst-performing school district in the country: Was Washington “the worst-performing school district in the country” when Fenty and Rhee took over? Almost surely, no—it was not. The NAEP only includes a limited number of school districts in its Trial Urban District Assessment—but even there, Los Angeles vastly underperformed DC in fourth- and eighth-grade reading on the 2007 NAEP. (The NAEP tests reading and math, in fourth and eighth grades. In all that follows, we will only consider black students, since black kids constitute the vast bulk of the DC student population.) Meanwhile, when Detroit, Milwaukee and Fresno were added to the NAEP study in 2009, black students in all three cities scored far below the scores attained by DC’s black students in 2007. But then, many other cities haven’t taken part in this (valuable) study at all. Where was New Orleans scoring in 2007? How about St. Louis, Kansas City? How about Birmingham, Jackson, Newark, Camden? How about Gary, Indiana? The NAEP still hasn’t included these cities, along with many others—but Washington was not the lowest-scoring city in reading, even among the cities which were included in the NAEP study in 2007.

Rhee’s claim comes closer to being true in math—but even here, it’s extremely unlikely that Washington was “the worst-performing school district” in 2007. Again, when Detroit was included in the NAEP study in 2009, that city’s black students produced math scores which were much lower than the scores attained by the District’s black students in 2007. Milwaukee’s scores in 2009 were barely distinguishable from Washington’s earlier scores—and a range of other districts still have not been included.

Make no mistake—Washington’s performance was very poor when Rhee arrived, though its scores had already risen from earlier performances in 2002 and 2003, when the NAEP’s Trial Urban District Assessment began. But it’s hard to see how DC was “the worst.” This claim enhances Rhee and Fenty’s assertion of vast success. But it seems to be simply wrong.

Rhee’s second claim seems flatly wrong, unless she and Fenty are slicing and dicing NAEP data in truly innovative ways:

We lead the nation in gains: Has Washington “led the nation in gains” since Fenty and Rhee took over? Presumably, we’re still talking about the NAEP, the only source of serious data. But other cities made much larger gains on the NAEP from 2007 through 2009, the only new testing which has occurred since Fenty and Rhee took control. For ourselves, we’d be reluctant to draw sweeping conclusions about relative progress from such a narrow, two-year time frame. But Washington’s black students recorded very limited progress on the NAEP in that two-year period, even allowing for a technical adjustment at the eighth-grade level in 2009. Much larger gains were recorded by black students in Boston, New York and San Diego. Is there some way to slice and dice certain data to make this claim true? It’s hard to see what it would be.

Almost surely, Washington wasn’t “the lowest-performing district” when Rhee took over—and it’s hard to see how it has “led the nation in gains” since that time. But as they continued, Rhee and Fenty offered readers one more claim of vast success. Truly, this is just sad:

RHEE AND FENTY (continuing directly): On our local exam, we've increased student achievement in all subject areas and grade levels. At the secondary levels, these gains are unparalleled anywhere in the country. More students are graduating and ready to attend college, our schools are safer and our parents are more satisfied.

Even in the wake of the recent scandal regarding “local exams” in the state of New York, Rhee and Fenty keep pushing a basically meaningless claim about DC’s “gains” on its own local tests. There is, of course, no way to know if such score gains can be taken seriously. Questions have been raised about the year-to-year difficulty of DC’s local tests, the very issue which forced the state of New York to renounce its test data for the past several years. The NAEP provides the reliable measure of such gains—and on the NAEP, the District’s gains were rather meager during Rhee’s first two years. (It was during those two years that scores jumped the most on the District’s “local exams.” In Rhee’s third year, a drop in scores led to questions about the reliability of these tests.)

Does any of this actually matter? Only if schools and children matter. Rhee is part of a “school reform” movement which has its strengths and its weaknesses. But one of this movement’s obvious weaknesses seems to be its unbending tendency to dissemble, overstate, over-simplify—even lie—in service to its revolutionary ends. There’s little the Rhees won’t do and say in support of their rather limited vision—and true believers like the Post are always there to enable them. As a result, we are now suffering through an absurdly simplistic discussion about the need for better teachers—with a columnist in the New York Times even praising film-maker Davis Guggenheim for his “manipulative, simplistic” discussion of these important matters.

Rhee came into Washington trailing a decade-long misstatement behind here. She leaves the District in much the same way, slicing and dicing (or misstating) data, thus overstating her alleged success. (Rhee always says that it’s “all about the children. Truth to tell, her endless dissembling seems to suggest that it’s more often all about her.

Meanwhile, consider the work of the Post “Outlook” section on the past two Sundays. In the past two weeks, Outlook has featured three pieces by this gang of true-believing “reformers” atop its front page.

Yesterday, it allowed teacher union head Randi Weingarten to respond—inside, on page A2. So it goes as this silly newspaper pretends to play honest broker.

(For the record, Weingarten’s piece was nothing special. But unlike the Rhee/Klein crowd, she didn’t pretend that she has discovered some single, magical formula.)

But then, the Post has been a clown for Rhee ever since she came to the District. She brought real strengths and real weaknesses with her; the public would have benefitted from a real discussion of same. But “reform” has become a tribal matter, and the Post is firmly in the grip of the Bloomberg/Klein/Rhee/Wendy Kopp tribal structure. These are the highly tribal proponents of a highly simplistic type of “reform.” But even in the wake of the major recent embarrassment suffered by Bloomberg and Klein in New York, the Post keeps letting Rhee pimp her jive. But then, the whole discussion of “school reform” in the past six weeks has been a large, rolling embarrassment.

Were we ever smart and honest enough to look for real solutions to problems? Was there ever a time when such discussions didn’t turn totally tribal? The Rhees, the Bloombergs and the Kleins have been highly limited reformers. They have real contributions to make, but they aren’t infallible oracles, delivered to earth by the school reform gods. Their ideas aren’t the only ideas, although they rarely seem to know it. And sometimes, their ideas are just wrong.

But so what? Tribal affiliates like the Post just keep pimping these true believers. Did we ever know how to discuss such matters? If so, what went wrong?

Visit our incomparable archives: When Rhee arrived in the District, an apparent lie trailed behind her. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/2/07, for the first of our reports. After that, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/11/07.

The Post played dumb for Rhee at that time—much as it did on Sunday. Did we ever know how to manage such matters without turning instantly tribal?