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24! Twenty-four years later, Strauss gets it right—but Fred Hiatt still hasn’t heard: // link // print // previous // next //
MONDAY, OCTOBER 30, 2006

RUSSERT GETS IT RIGHT: Our analysts were thrilled when Tim Russert held up that Michael Steele bumper sticker. Steele is running for the Senate in Maryland—and has anyone ever been such a pure charlatan? Matthew Mosk excerpts the brief exchange in this morning’s Post:
MOSK (10/30/06): "I've been outed," Steele said, laughing. "Okay, everybody, I'm a Republican."

Russert was undeterred, holding up a Steele bumper sticker that read, "Steele Democrat."

"That's not truth in advertising," Russert said.

"You've never heard of 'Reagan Democrats?' " Steele responded.
Yes, that’s right. Michael Steele, former chairman of the Maryland Republican Party, is running for the Senate in Maryland. And he’s distributing bumper stickers which bear only two words:
STEELE
Democrat
The intention is obvious from this slick, slippery candidate, who has engaged in such world-class scams in the past. Because the deception here is so comical, we’ve been surprised that this latest effort has been ignored by the national press. Pols like Steele really will “do and say anything.” But suddenly—Tim Russert excepted—big scribes just don’t seem to care.

HOW TO DRIVE A FORD INTO A DITCH: Yesterday, George Stephanopoulos played part of that famous Tennessee ad during This Week’s roundtable segment. The excerpt included the part of the ad where an actor says this about Harold Ford:
So he took money from porn movie producers. I mean, who hasn't?
But did Ford “take money from porn producers?” Stephanopoulos and his high-minded panel made no attempt to answer that question; their ensuing discussion only involved their high-minded thoughts about race. We especially noticed this omission because, just a few hours earlier, we were watching C-SPAN’s Washington Journal when an especially dim-witted Tennessee voter said this about that same ad:
CALLER (10/29/06): That ad had nothing to do with race...That ad told the truth about Harold Ford, when he’s up in there preachin’ in churches on his political ad and he’s accepting money from porn producers. Sorry—facts are facts.
Clearly, facts are facts. But what are the facts about that “porn movie” claim? As we’ve noted, the Chattanooga Times has called it a “lie,” saying this about the charge: “The fact is, Mr. Ford did receive, but immediately returned, a $3,600 contribution from a disreputable donor, much as many congressmen—and many Republicans recently—have returned contributions from unsavory lobbyists.” (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/26/06.)

What are the facts about that “porn movie” claim? In truth, it’s almost impossible to say. Even in Tennessee, newspapers have made almost no attempt to fact-check this exceptionally high-profile charge. Meanwhile, “broadcast journalists” keep playing the part of the now-famous ad in which the actor makes this charge—while failing to make any attempt to assess the truth of the claim. Voters keep hearing the claim being made—and inevitably, many come to believe it.

On balance, it’s hard to say who is dimmer—callers like the one from Tennessee, or “journalists” like those on that high-minded panel. But one thing is certain; the people who made that ad about Ford are laughing all the way to the Diebold machine. Ford gets driven into a ditch, while high-minded scribes share their high-minded views about the ascendancy of race. Viewers get to see how high-minded the journalists are. In the process, they also come to believe that Ford is taking money from porn kings.

If people weren’t willing to be this dumb on TV, it would be hard to dream it up. And yes—we’re talking about that high-minded panel, not about that Tennessee caller.

(To hear the caller’s full discussion, just click here, then fast-forward twelve minutes into the tape of “Washington Journal Entire Program” for Sunday, October 29.)

24: We never thought we’d see it! In last Tuesday’s Washington Post, Valerie Strauss wrote a pair of reports about various aspects of public school textbooks. (To read her principal report, just click here.) And omigod! Midway through her secondary report, Strauss described an actual problem which actually afflicts real urban schools! The headline: “Assigned Books Often Are a Few Sizes Too Big.” We never thought we’d see the day when a journalist actually discussed this:
STRAUSS (10/24/06): Of particular concern are students in urban school systems, said Richard Allington, a leading researcher on reading instruction and a professor of reading education at the University of Tennessee.

In large part, he blames inappropriately chosen books for students' reading woes, especially in school systems where large percentages of children read below grade level. The average fifth-grade student in Detroit and Baltimore, for example, reads at a third-grade level, he said, but schools still give them fifth-grade core reading and social studies texts.

That, he said, crushes a child's motivation.
Oh. Our. God. We first wrote about this massive problem in the Baltimore Evening Sun—in 1982. And good news! It only took twenty-four years for the mainstream press to catch on!

For the record, Strauss’ report slightly understates the problem of “inappropriately chosen books.” According to Allington, the average fifth-grader in cities like Baltimore and Detroit is reading on third-grade level. And that child is being handed fifth-grade textbooks—textbooks he simply can’t read. But if the average fifth-grader is on third-grade level, that means that many urban fifth-graders are reading below that level. For them, the problem posed by grade-level textbooks is only that much worse.

Trust us: It’s shocking to see a major newspaper describe an actual urban school problem. For a more typical example—for an example of consummate know-nothing punditry—just read this op-ed piece by Fred Hiatt, which appeared in the Post one day before Strauss’ report.

For reasons only he can explain, Hiatt loves discussing the D.C. schools—although ,when he does, it’s always quite clear that he knows next to nothing about them. In last Monday’s column, he asks himself what Adrian Fenty, the District’s next mayor, should do to reorganize Washington’s schools. Every sentence in the column advertises Hiatt’s lack of knowledge. Finally, deep in his piece, he screams it to the skies:
HIATT (10/23/06): In a recent conversation, [superintendent of schools Clifford Janey] argued that he has put the schools on the right track already.

"There's no need to start all over again," Janey said. "We've been aiming to build the foundation with deliberate speed."

In two years, Janey noted, he has put in place a set of academic standards. He has rebuilt a lot of the basics that get no attention until they fail: making sure that textbooks are purchased, paid for and distributed on time, or that children have their immunization shots before they start school. He has replaced 85 out of 147 principals. "Was that done slowly?" he asks.
Perfect! According to Hiatt, Clifford Janey has “ma[de] sure that textbooks are purchased, paid for and distributed on time.” But can District school kids read these textbooks? The thought never enters Hiatt’s head. For what it’s worth, we’ll take a wild guess—Janey hasn’t pondered it, either.

Strauss discusses Allington’s point only briefly, as part of her supplementary article. But omigod! In that passage, she describes an actual urban school problem—a major but correctable problem, one which cripples the schooling of actual urban kids. We discussed it at length twenty-four years ago. Most high-minded Washington journalists still—alas—haven’t heard.

VISIT OUR INCOMPARABLE ARCHIVES: For a previous discussion of this topic, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/14/05. Meanwhile, here’s an excerpt of our way-back piece in the Baltimore Evening Sun. It was based on a year of incomparable research—though we might as well have spent that year shouting down moss-covered wells:
SOMERBY (2/9/82): [I]n grade after grade, for topic after topic, [Baltimore teaching] guides recommend textbooks which are clearly too difficult for most city students to work from—books which are completely inappropriate for children who may be several years below traditional grade level in reading.

In the first semester of fourth grade, for example, the two most commonly cited textbooks are Daniel Chu’s “A Glorious Age in Africa”—a textbook with a measured eighth-grade reading level—and Frederick King’s “The Social Studies and Our Country”—Laidlaw’s sixth-grade textbook.

Few fourth graders anywhere will be able to profit from textbooks as difficult as these. In an urban system like Baltimore’s, this selection is particularly surprising—and dooms any attempt to teach the social studies curriculum in a rigorous, systematic way.
We even offered the following point. But then, we’d spent a good chunk of time inside real urban schoolrooms:
SOMERBY: The results of this situation are all too predictable. Baltimore teachers find it difficult—indeed, impossible—to find readable textbooks with which social studies and science can be taught to their numerous below-level readers. The result may be that such children are not taught social studies and science at all.
Even then, this was how the poor got poorer. Twenty-four years later, Hiatt cheers the fact that these useless books are getting to Washington’s children more quickly. Borrowing from Allington’s language: They no longer have to wait so long to get their motivation crushed.