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UNFORTUNATELY, IT STILL ISN’T WORK! Hedrick Smith replies to our post—and we, in turn, to him: // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, OCTOBER 28, 2005

PNAC NAIF STRIKES AGAIN: We’ve marveled before at Michael Kinsley, brightest man of the 1980s. More specifically, we’ve gaped and marveled at Kinsley’s frequent current factual cluelessness. (For our report on his ignorance of the important group, PNAC, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/9/05). And this morning, the PNAC naif has struck again. In the Post, Kinsley writes this about Judith Miller and Scooter Libby:
KINSLEY (10/28/05): Everyone assumed that Miller's source was [Libby]. Him and/or Karl Rove...He said he didn't mind if she testified. She apparently didn't hear this, so a couple months later he said it louder and she said okay. Then she testified that she couldn't remember who told her that Valerie Plame was an undercover CIA agent, but it wasn't [Libby].
But that’s an amazingly jumbled account of what Miller has said. Here’s her account in the New York Times of her June 23, 2003 meeting with Libby:
MILLER (10/16/05): At that breakfast meeting, our conversation also turned to Mr. Wilson's wife. My notes contain a phrase inside parentheses: ''Wife works at Winpac.'' Mr. Fitzgerald asked what that meant. Winpac stood for Weapons Intelligence, Non-Proliferation, and Arms Control, the name of a unit within the C.I.A. that, among other things, analyzes the spread of unconventional weapons.

I said I couldn't be certain whether I had known Ms. Plame's identity before this meeting, and I had no clear memory of the context of our conversation that resulted in this notation. But I told the grand jury that I believed that this was the first time I had heard that Mr. Wilson's wife worked for Winpac. In fact, I told the grand jury that when Mr. Libby indicated that Ms. Plame worked for Winpac, I assumed that she worked as an analyst, not as an undercover operative.

Mr. Fitzgerald asked me whether Mr. Libby had mentioned nepotism. I said no. And as I told the grand jury, I did not recall—and my interview notes do not show—that Mr. Libby suggested that Ms. Plame had helped arrange her husband's trip to Niger. My notes do suggest that our conversation about Ms. Plame was brief.

In fact, Miller doesn’t claim that anyone told her that Plame was “an undercover agent.” Early in her piece, she says she doesn’t think that Libby ever told her that Plame was under cover—but then again, she doesn’t assert that she ever knew this fact. Kinsley makes it sound like somebody other than Libby told her. This insinuation seems to be wrong. But so it goes, again and again, in our celebrity press corps.

Indeed, recent discussions of this high-profile matter have been chock-a-block full of false facts. On Hardball, Chris Matthews has been cheerleading for indictments for weeks, but he just keeps getting his basic facts wrong, making blunders which cut both ways. On the one hand, Matthews keeps saying, incorrectly, that Joseph Wilson said that Dick Cheney sent him on his trip to Niger. This is a bogus RNC talking-point—one that Matthews keeps reciting. But then too, he keeps insisting that we have no idea why Cheney wouldn’t have seen a report on Wilson’s trip. In fact, there’s a clear explanation of that matter in the Senate Intelligence Committee report—an explanation no one really disputes. Even Wilson has long since agreed that Cheney didn’t get briefed on his trip. But Matthews, clueless, still hasn’t heard. NBC pays him massive, large sums. But he’s too lazy to read the basic reports—and he isn’t savvy (or concerned) enough to keep his ignorance under a basket.

But then again, for perfect cluelessness, we’d have to give high marks to Miller. She included the following anecdote in her Times report—and she’s been slammed for it ever since:

MILLER: Mr. Fitzgerald asked about a notation I made on the first page of my notes about this July 8 meeting, ''Former Hill staffer.''

My recollection, I told him, was that Mr. Libby wanted to modify our prior understanding that I would attribute information from him to a ''senior administration official.'' When the subject turned to Mr. Wilson, Mr. Libby requested that he be identified only as a ''former Hill staffer.'' I agreed to the new ground rules because I knew that Mr. Libby had once worked on Capitol Hill.

Did Mr. Libby explain this request? Mr. Fitzgerald asked. No, I don't recall, I replied. But I said I assumed Mr. Libby did not want the White House to be seen as attacking Mr. Wilson.

Miller didn’t have to include that in her report. She’s been slammed for “agreeing to these ground rules” ever since. To all appearances, Miller simply didn’t realize how bad this matter would make her look. But then, how clueless are the foppish grandees of your reigning celebrity press corps? Just watch Matthews fumble his basic facts each night—or reread that passage from Kinsley.

UNFORTUNATELY, IT STILL ISN’T WORKING: On October 10, we posted a short report about Making Schools Work with Hedrick Smith, a two-hour PBS documentary about public schools which serve low-income kids (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/10/05). We noted a peculiar (if familiar) fact; one of the schools which the program featured has extremely low test scores. The schools in question: Spaugh Middle School of Charlotte, North Carolina. “This past spring, only 57.7 percent of Spaugh’s black eighth graders passed North Carolina’s end-of-grade reading test,” we noted. “[S]tatewide, 80.5 percent of black eighth graders passed.” We then asked what we think is a sensible question: “Without criticizing the staff at Spaugh, why would a school with these results be singled out as a ‘school that works?’”

We’ve received the following e-mail from Smith, which we’re happy to post in full (and respond to). No, we really don’t agree with Smith’s points. But as we’ve told him, we assume that everyone involved in this discussion has a single, uniform goal. We assume we’re all looking for ways for low-income kids to get a better deal from their schooling:

E-MAIL FROM SMITH: The viewer should have understood that we were not singling out the Spaugh Middle School as a model school for others to learn from and mimic. We did that with another school in Charlotte, the Highland Elementary School, which in six years jumped from a 36 percent passing rate to over 80 percent. We were using Spaugh to illustrate the Charlotte strategy of "equity"—putting more resources into a school of need, a high poverty neighborhood, kids from broken homes, high crime rates.

That said, Spaugh’s students have shown considerable improvement year to year, even though they still fall below state average. The 57.7 percent passing rate for the class of 2005 in reading was up from 40.9 percent two years earlier, which The Daily Howler presumably saw but decided to ignore. Also, that particular student cohort has had a weaker record than other classes in the same school. Again, the North Carolina records would show the reading scores for the class of 2004 in their eighth grade year were 75.4 percent—still not at state average but well above its earlier scores.

So the story at Spaugh is one of improvement among kids who have been very difficult for anyone to educate—which was the point of our piece. We think that was a point worth making.

Smith makes two different points in his e-mail. He says that Spaugh students “have shown considerable improvement year to year,” although they’re still not at state average. Second, he says that Making Schools Work did not intend to “single out Spaugh as a model school;” he says the program was just “using Spaugh to illustrate the Charlotte strategy of ‘equity’—putting more resources into a school of need, a high poverty neighborhood, kids from broken homes, high crime rates.”

We’ll have to disagree with each point. Here’s why:

Progress at Spaugh: In what follows, we mean no disrespect to the staff at Spaugh; their effort and character are both quite apparent as we watch the Spaugh segment in Making Schools Work. Spaugh does indeed serve a high-poverty neighborhood. We ourselves have taught in schools which serve deserving low-income kids, and we know it isn’t easy to produce the results we all dream of and want to work for.

But it’s hard to say that Spaugh is showing “considerable improvement” at this time. We’ll start with a type of comparison Smith didn’t make; we’ll compare the annual passing rate of Spaugh’s black eighth graders on North Carolina’s state reading test. Here are the passing rates of Spaugh’s black eighth graders in reading in the past three years:

Passing rate, Spaugh black eighth graders, reading
2003: 63.9 percent
2004: 74.8 percent
2005: 57.7 percent
Passing rates jump around on such tests; this is especially true among relatively small populations, like a single grade group in a single school. But it’s hard to say Spaugh is showing progress when one looks at these figures. This is especially true when one considers this fact—the passing rate among black eighth-graders statewide has risen slightly during this period (from 77.8 percent to 80.5). But then, the same pattern obtains in seventh grade:
Passing rate, Spaugh black seventh graders, reading
2003: 62.7 percent
2004: 53.1 percent
2005: 58.2 percent
Here too, the statewide black passing rate has risen slightly during this period (74.7 to 76.2). Three years is a short time span, but it’s hard to find the progress here. Only on the sixth-grade level have Spaugh’s numbers gone up:
Passing rate, Spaugh black sixth graders, reading
2003: 40.9 percent
2004: 45.5 percent
2005: 49.7 percent
Statewide, 69.5 percent of black sixth graders passed the reading test this year. Overall, we’d call Spaugh’s numbers flat—and they’re far behind the statewide norm. It’s quite a stretch to claim meaningful progress.

For the record, Smith makes a different type of comparison in his e-mail. He compares the “year to year” passing rates of the Class of 2005; that is, he compare’s Spaugh’s sixth-grade passing rate in 2003 with the eighth-grade passing rate two years later. If the students tested were all the same kids—if the same group of kids had attended Spaugh these three years—this comparison might be instructive. But alas! In 2003, Spaugh tested 193 black sixth-graders; two years later, in 2005, Spaugh tested only 142 black eighth-graders. (This is due to no failure on Spaugh’s part; it tested roughly 95 percent of its black eighth graders all three years.) Is Smith making a valid comparison? Sorry—because Spaugh’s population was quite different two years later, comparing these scores is pure apples-to-oranges. We didn’t “decide to ignore” this comparison; we skipped this comparison, because it’s basically worthless. But this sort of thing goes on a great deal when well-meaning journalists seek good news at the nation’s low-income schools. We’ll note this syndrome in more detail when we examine Making Schools Work at greater length, starting next week.

How Spaugh was presented in Making Schools Work: In his e-mail, Smith makes a second claim. He says that Making Schools Work did not intend to “single out Spaugh as a model school;” he says the program was just “using Spaugh to illustrate the Charlotte strategy of ‘equity’—putting more resources into a school of need.” Readers can judge this claim for themselves by reading the program’s transcript (the segment on Charlotte starts about halfway through); we’ll examine this point in more detail in our reports next week. But we’ve watched and re-watched the show’s segment on Spaugh since we received this e-mail from Smith, and we’ll have to say we disagree with the general thrust of his statement. In the part of the program which deals with “Equity Plus” schools like Spaugh, Smith describes the way the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system “sends educational SWAT teams into struggling schools.” Superintendent James Pughsley takes it from there:

PUGHSLEY: We pride ourselves on the fact that we allocate resources on a differentiated basis, based on need—not just purely a formula based on the number of kids you have, but what are the needs of those kids? What are the conditions that we’re trying to overcome? That determines the level of resources that we’ll allocate.
Moments later, Smith takes it local. “The importance of Equity-Plus Schools is evident here at Bishop Spaugh Academy,” he says. But during the time he spends at Spaugh, we’re never told a vastly important fact. We’re never told that, for all their “importance,” sometimes when “SWAT teams” go into a school, they don’t seem to do any good. You would never know, from the segment on Spaugh, that its seventh- and eighth-grade reading scores have actually declined in the three years considered. Most specifically, you wouldn’t know it because Smith pops up at the end of the segment and makes this puzzling statement:
SMITH: Over the past three years, Spaugh has been steadily improving student performance. But it isn’t just Spaugh—the entire Charlotte district has been on a solid, steady upward trend over the past nine years.
For reasons we’ll examine next week, Smith’s claim about the Charlotte district could be seen as a minor stretch. But his claim about Spaugh is, simply put, puzzling. We can’t imagine why someone would say that Spaugh “has been steadily improving student performance”—unless he wants to send viewers home happy. It’s been a crippling journalistic impulse, over the course of the past forty years—one that tells viewers that they can stop worrying about the deserving, delightful kids who need our help in our nation’s urban schools. Things are going well, Smith’s viewers were told—but Spaugh’s test scores seem to say something different. That’s true despite all the heartache, concern and good faith put out by Spaugh’s hard-working staff.

Much more on these topics will follow. Making Schools Work is a fascinating study. Because it concerns the kids who sit “in those little chairs,” it deserves our fullest attention.

TWO NOTES ON METHOD: Spaugh is roughly 90 percent black. We’ve used black scores to permit comparison with black passing rates statewide. As we’ve seen in earlier posts, it’s hard to know what to make of a local score gain until one sees what is happening on the same test statewide. (Sometimes a local score gain is produced by an easier test.)

Second point: Why are we (and Smith) considering only three years of test scores from Spaugh? Smith explains in Making Schools Work: “[Spaugh] used to be a top science magnet school with a racially mixed student body from all over the district. But three years ago, when the courts ended busing, Spaugh overnight became a nearly all-black school serving a poor neighborhood.” Spaugh’s student population was vastly different as late as the 2001-2002 school year. We’re considering the three years in which Spaugh has been a neighborhood school with a mostly-black student population.

LINKS: For the web site of Making Schools Work, click here. For convenience, here is the program’s full transcript. Meanwhile, readers can check all test data at the official state site. You know what to do—just click here.