Tomorrow, well start a three- or four-week study of the PBS program, Making Schools Work with Hedrick Smith. As we do so, well continue to offer reports on traditional subjects. But slowly, our focus will turn.
A CLASSIC OF ITS TYPE: While were on the subject of schools that work, some readers called attention to this report in the Washington Post, a classic of its type. Arundel School Closes Achievement Gap, says the headline. At North Glen, Black Students Outperform Whites in Many Areas. The report appeared on page one of the Posts Metro section.
The Post report, by Daniel de Vise, refers to North Glen Elementary in Glen Burnie, Maryland, a school which achieved some excellent scores on Marylands state-mandated testing this year. Here is de Vises nugget—a nugget which has informed such reports for more than thirty years:
DE VISE (10/31/05): The rise of North Glen Elementary, a school where two-fifths of students are from families poor enough to qualify for free meals, illustrates how a public school can go a very long way in a very short time with the help of a charismatic principal, an enthusiastic staff and supportive parents.Ah yes! High-poverty schools could go a very long way in a very short time if teachers would just get off their fat asses! This pleasing tale has been recited for decades. Big papers love to present it.
Its academic dossier—a mixed-race, working-class, high-poverty school with test scores to rival schools in affluent suburbs—embodies the goal of No Child Left Behind, the federal mandate created as a means to raise academic achievement across all racial and socioeconomic groups, and, most symbolically, to close the historic achievement gap between blacks and whites.
For ourselves, weve actually taught in high-poverty schools, and we never found things quite that easy. Well examine these issues in great detail in our reports on Making Schools Work. But lets offer a few observation about de Vises report.
First: North Glen is not a high-poverty school. Yes, its a school where two-fifths of students are from families poor enough to qualify for free meals. But uh-oh! De Vise seems to be talking about free or reduced lunch—and North Glens data on this measure are fairly typical of Maryland schools (and are far from high-poverty level). In Maryland elementary schools, 38.1 percent of students received free or reduced lunch last year. At North Glen, the figure was 46.3 percent—and this followed a concerted effort by the schools principal to get that figure up. (De Vise: The new principal launched a schoolwide campaign to raise the number of students enrolled for federally subsidized meals, offering popsicles to those who turned in paperwork.) In a real high-poverty school, the figure will run from 95 to 100 percent. North Glen is not a high-poverty school, although the story feels much better if we pretend that it is. (All data can be checked at the official state web site. You know what to do—just click here.)
(Note: In the course of de Vises report, North Glen and its neighborhood are variously described as working class, middle class, high-poverty and professional class, depending on the needs of the moment.)
Second: North Glens scores are clearly quite good—but its student body is clearly quite small. De Vise focuses on third grade, where 15 of the schools 16 black kids passed this years state reading test. But in third grade, 11 of North Glens 12 white students also passed, along with all 5 Hispanics. Thanks to the magic of (misused) percentages, this is what the Post headline describes as black students outperform[ing] whites. By the way: Why does de Vise discuss only third and fourth grade? Well guess: Because at the other level tested, fifth grade, black and white kids passed at the same rate, 72 percent. (Again, all Hispanic kids passed.) And no—given the tiny numbers involved, that doesnt really tell you much either.
North Glen has posted some very good numbers. If those numbers reflect real student achievement, something good seems to be going on at the school. But its hard to know what conclusions to draw from this tiny amount of data. Unless youre a journalist, in which you know exactly what these data mean: They mean that teachers should get off their asses and produce high tests scores like North Glen did! There! That made Post readers feel good! And it makes an absolute joke of the effort to study public schooling.
A few final notes:
One way to eliminate achievement gaps is to give a test thats very easy. In fact, if you construct a test thats easy enough, every single kid will pass—even though achievement gaps may remain. Did that phenomenon play a role here? We dont know, but the Maryland third grade test seems to be fairly easy. When it was introduced in 2003, 58 percent of the states third graders passed. By this spring, just two years later, the rate was up to 76 percent. By the way: 64 percent of the states black third-graders passed this test this year, and 70 percent of black fourth-graders passed their test. Given those statewide passing rates, is it really surprising to find a school where 15 out of 16 black kids passed? Is it surprising in a community with a burgeoning black professional class—something de Vise mentions near the end of his piece?
Finally: For several reasons, we tend to see the North Glen principals cheerleading for these test sessions as a problem, not as cause for praise. One reason: To the extent that such cheerleading actually works, were no longer measuring student ability; instead, were measuring adult exuberance. Its a very basic principle: Tests like this are most informative when all schools prepare the same way. Years ago, school systems strove for such standardization. Now, well-intentioned cheerleading hold sway. In our book, the traded-off is bad.
HUMEAN ERROR: The propaganda continued last night on Fox News Channels Special Report. Brit Hume was determined to hide a few basic facts: Patrick Fitzgerald found that Libby and Rove revealed Plames identity, which was classified—and he said this caused damage to all of us. But you know Fox! Brit seemed to determined to fool the rubes into thinking that no such finding exists. And he had assembled a panel of consummate hacks who were willing to play along with the process.
First to speak in this remarkable session was Fox uber-hack Charles Krauthammer. Hume played tape of a Wilson statement, then turned to Charles. And viewers were played for total fools:
WILSON (videotape): If the Republican party wants to believe that leaking the identity of clandestine officers or violating the national security of this country is OK, then that's their problem. I don't believe it is OK. And I believe that as Americans, we should all be appalled by this sort of behavior from the senior reaches of this administration.Slick, slick, slick! No, there was no crime alleged—and Fitzgerald did refuse to say if Plame had been covert. But he did say that Plames identity was classified—and he did say that Libby leaked it, doing us harm. Heres one part of that discussion, right after his baseball analogy:
HUME (10/31/05): That is Joe Wilson today at the National Press Club reacting to the indictment on Friday of Scooter Libby, vice president Cheney's then-chief of staff, now departed and succeeded. What about this?...Was it established in this indictment that someone had leaked the identity of a CIA agent and there was a covert operation undergoing or not?
KRAUTHAMMER: Well, absolutely not. Nobody was indicted on that charge, the original charge that sparked the investigation. If there were a crime committed or at least a suspicion of it, this prosecutor would obviously have indicted someone. He did not.
FITZGERALD (10/28/05): In this case, it's a lot more serious than baseball. And the damage wasn't to one person, it wasn't to Valerie Wilson, it was done to all of us. And as you sit back, you want to learn why was this information going out. Why were people taking this information about Valerie Wilson and giving it to reporters? Why did Mr. Libby say what he did? Why did he tell Judith Miller three times? Why did he tell the press secretary on Monday? Why did he tell Mr. Cooper? And was this something where he intended to cause whatever damage was caused, or did he intend to do something else? And what are the shades of gray?In his conference, Fitzgerald said that Plames identity was classified. He said that great damage was done in its leaking—and he said that Libby did the leaking. But on Fox, no one seemed able to make this simple statement. Kondracke tried, then let Hume shout him down. We ended up with the hapless Easton crumbling before her great master:
EASTON (10/31/05): [Fitzgerald] didn't conclude that there was a criminal conspiracy and I think what we saw today with Joe Wilson is—Incredible—theres simply no other word. Easton rolled over, agreeing that Fitzgerald never said that anyone had leaked Plames name. Weve often marveled at Eastons compliance when she fills in for Mara Liasson. Some pundits will do and say anything for fame and Fox money. Easton seems to be in that class.
HUME: Did he conclude that Valerie Plame was covert?
EASTON: He did not.
HUME: Did he conclude that anyone had leaked the name—her name?
EASTON: No, I don't— But let me go back to Joe Wilson...
FOUR BUTTONS, HUFFING AGAIN: But then, we now have our own Brit Humes. Yesterday, Four Buttons Huffington was ranting and railing about the fact that Libby called Russert to complain about Chris Matthews. Darlings, she was in highest dudgeon:
HUFFINGTON: Why did Libby (whom Purdum says Russert had no "particular prior relationship" with) call Russert to complain about Matthews? Why didn't he call Matthews himself or Hardball's executive producer? Or why didn't Libby call the president of NBC News to voice his complaints? Why did he pick Russert?Why did Libby call Russert to complain? Was the goal to get Matthews to back off? Playing her readers for absolute fools, Four Buttons was huffin again.
And why didn't Russert, in his role as NBC's Washington bureau chief, say to Libby, "If there is a factual error, let us know and we can correct it"? Instead, as Russert told Brian Williams following Fitzgerald's press conference: "I immediately called the president of NBC News and shared the complaint."
Was the goal to get Matthews to back off? Was the message to Russert: enforce the rules of the fraternity or risk losing your access?
Libby was acting like the White House version of a Hollywood publicist who says, Be nice to my star or you can forget about having him on your cover. Misbehave and you'll be punished.
Readers, how about this for a possible explanation: Libby called Russert (NBCs Washington bureau chief) to complain about Matthews because Matthews had been making a string of misstatements? For example, here are some of the things Matthews said on the 7/9/03 Hardball, three days after Wilsons op-ed in the New York Times:
MATTHEWS (7/9/03): We know from the weekend report that Joe Wilson, the former ambassador in that part of the world, in Gabon, had been sent at the CIA—at the behest of the vice president's office last year—to find if there had been a deal with the government of Niger over uranium sales to Iraq. Came back and said there is no such deal. That information is in the hands of the vice president's office, and they still let this go through the president's mouth. How did it happen?Matthews kept pushing—until Rockefeller made the false statement: I don't think there is any question but the vice president asked the CIA to send him over. But Cheney didnt ask the CIA to send Wilson over—and on a second point, even Wilson now agrees that Cheneys office never received a report on Wilsons trip (see Matthews contrary implication above). Is there any chance that Libby complained because Matthews—as always—was misstating facts? Quite appropriately, we liberals correct conservative hacks when they falsely allege that Wilson said that Cheney sent him to Niger. But thats what Matthews kept implying that night! Why wouldnt Libby call to complain? Complain to Russert, who stands above Matthews in the NBC chain? Meanwhile: Why didn't [Libby] call Matthews himself? Duh! How do we know that he didnt?
MATTHEWS (7/9/03): Let me go back to David Gergen on the question of who may be culpable here, because we do have a paper trail, thanks to Joe Wilson, the ambassador. He said he was sent to Niger, the government in Africa that is in question here. There we have a picture of him. He was on Meet the Press. He also wrote a letter, an op-ed piece for the New York Times this weekend. He made it very clear he was sent down there at the behest of the vice president's office last year. Months, almost a year before the president's State of the Union Address, he came back with the information that there was, in fact, no deal. Isn't vice president's office responsible, right now, to come out and say why they didn't act on that information?
MATTHEWS (7/9/03): The vice president went to the CIA to get some answers, and they used Mr. Wilson to get the facts.
MATTHEWS: I think that's the chain.
ROCKEFELLER: If I can interject—
MATTHEWS: Yes, Senator.
ROCKEFELLER: I don't think there is any question but the vice president asked the CIA to send him over. And this is a man who had served as an ambassador under Clinton as well as President Bush.
MATTHEWS: Thank you very much, Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and David Gergen, an expert on the presidency.
As Freud said, sometimes a call to complain is just a call to complain. But Arianna likes to treat her readers like fools, not unlike the clownish Hume. She spent her time during Campaign 2000 launching idiotic (and bogus) attacks on Al Gore. Now shes very, very upset to find that George W. Bush is our president—and she treats her readers like complete, screaming idiots. Matthews was making misstatements on Hardball—but you wont learn that from Arianna. Were puzzled when readers complain about Hume—then cheer on the work of this hack, who spent her time during Campaign 2000 complaining about Gores troubling four-button suits. There were no four-button suits, of course. But: Played for fools then—played for fools now. Why do we liberals accept it?