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GUSH, GUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE (PART 1)! A school chief makes remarkable claims—claims which don’t seem to be true: // link // print // previous // next //
WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 16, 2005

MARCUS GETS IT RIGHT: It took a while, but the Washington Post has gotten it right about Ruth Bader Ginsburg. In a Tuesday op-ed column, Ruth Marcus contradicted pseudo-conservative spin about Ginsburg, Clinton’s first Supreme Court nominee. Was Ginsburg a lefty kook when she went on the Court, as we endlessly hear from pseudo-con spinners? Sorry. “Far from being a crazed radical, Ginsburg had staked out a centrist role on a closely divided appeals court,” Marcus writes. She then describes a 1987 study of voting patterns on that court, in which Ginsburg “sided more often with Republican-appointed judges than with those chosen by Democrats.” For a more timely citation of this study, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/5/05.

Several thoughts about this matter: First, we again note the failure of Dems to run an effective message machine. Over the past five months, pseudo-con spinners have endlessly claimed that Republicans voted to confirm Ginsburg despite her wild-eyed, kooky ways. (In her column, Marcus debunks specific claims they have repeatedly made.) On cable, voters have heard these claims again and again—but libs and Dems have rarely offered the countervailing evidence. At present, the Democratic Party is simply unable, for whatever reason, to run a capable message machine. For that reason, we badly need leadership from the liberal web. We need to find a way to publish and push elementary info—information of the kind Marcus offers this week.

Second, kudos to Marcus for another part of her column—the part where she mentions Sean Hannity. Conservatives are trying to make it look like Ginsburg was a kook, she notes. And then, she gives an example:

MARCUS (11/15/05): On the night of the Alito nomination, for instance, Fox News's Sean Hannity pushed this argument. "You knew the very extreme positions of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, but you gave the benefit of the doubt to President Clinton," he prompted Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
Excellent! As we have said again and again, citizens deserve to be told that hacks like Hannity play them for fools, hayseeds, rubes. But mainstream journalists rarely tread on this dangerous territory. It’s very constructive for Marcus to name this name. Mainstream journalists ought to complain about misconduct in the wilder regions of their deeply challenged profession. People like Hannity prey on our discourse. Readers deserve to be told that.

By the way, Clinton’s second choice was a moderate too. Here’s the way conservative pundit Donald Lambro explained that choice in the Washington Times:

LAMBRO (5/23/94): [T]he president is already reshaping and fine-tuning his political themes, stressing issues his pollsters say will be critical to winning the pivotal blue-collar swing vote that will decide the 1996 election: crime, welfare reform, individual responsibility, jobs and the economy.

His nomination of Judge Stephen Breyer to sit on the Supreme Court helps to underscore those issues. Judge Breyer is known for siding with the prosecution on criminal cases and has a distinctly pro-business reputation on regulatory issues. This is all part of a calculated strategy to reposition and redefine the president within the moderate wing of his party.

Clinton was criticized from the left for his choice of Breyer. But don’t worry! If Hannity decides to tell viewers different—treating them like fools as he does—some Democrat or mainstream scribe will get around to correcting the record five or six months later.

Their message machine is very slick. Ours is essentially non-existent.

WE HAVE A DREAM: That one day, papers like the Post will run a regular feature, “Spin Watch.” They’ll list widespread, inaccurate cable spin-points. Then they’ll give relevant facts.

Special Report: Gush, Gush, Sweet Charlotte!

VISIT OUR INCOMPARABLE ARCHIVES: Today, we start a third set of reports on Making Schools Work with Hedrick Smith, a recent, two-hour PBS documentary. For Part 1 of our first set of posts, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/2/05. For Part 1 of our second set of posts, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/9/05.

PART 1—RAPPACCINI’S TEST SCORES: For the record, it isn’t just those young colts from Teach for America who “express high expectations for students, regardless of students’ background or prior achievement” and “believe that schools should hold inner-city students to the same academic standards as students from wealthy backgrounds.” Starting in 1996, the superintendent of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg (N.C.) Schools expressed the same ideals. Charlotte-Mecklenburg, a large urban/suburban system, was originally formed in 1960; in 2001, it was recognized by the Council of the Great City Schools as one of four urban districts which had raised student test scores and lowered the racial “achievement gap”(although the system isn’t quite “urban”). In Making Schools Work with Hedrick Smith, Charlotte-Mecklenburg (hereafter called “Charlotte”) is the second large district examined and praised for the alleged strength of its long-term reforms.

By all accounts, those reforms were the work of Superintendent Eric Smith, who took over in Charlotte in 1996. At the end of the PBS segment on Charlotte, Superintendent Smith makes a set of remarkable claims. Here’s an ambiguous teaser:

ERIC SMITH (10/5/05): People who say that low-income children, minority children, can’t excel at extraordinarily high levels are just flat out wrong. They just haven’t seen the evidence.
Of course, everyone knows that many minority/low-income kids achieve “at extraordinarily high levels.” The problem has always concerned the averages, where poor and minority kids have tended to lag far behind their suburban white peers. But in Eric Smith’s background interview with Hedrick Smith, he seems to say there’s no problem there either. Here is the fuller context for the statement we’ve quoted:
ERIC SMITH (Superintendent): I knew from Day One [in Charlotte] that all the kids could do the same level of work. They could accomplish it in the same time frame. In terms of calendar days they would respond to the expectation to work at an extraordinarily high level. I knew that Charlotte had the capacity to make that happen.

HEDRICK SMITH: But there are a lot of people in this country who say public education can't work and it specifically can't work for kids who come from minority families and high poverty areas.

ERIC SMITH: People who say that low-income children, minority children can't excel at extraordinary levels are flat out wrong. They just haven't seen the evidence. And the evidence has to be seen with children that are given the kind of instruction that is required to allow children to excel at that level.

Yikes! If the English language means what it once did, Eric Smith seems to be saying that low-income/minority kids as a group, in a large school system, can learn just as much as their peers, just as fast. “What I saw was two different games being played out in Charlotte,” he says of the school district he inherited. “I saw a game of low expectations being played out…And I saw a low level of performance. Kids will perform at the level at which they are taught. And if you teach at a low level you're going to get performance at a low level.” Like those kids from Teach for America, Eric Smith was talkin’ that high expectations talk.

“Kids will perform at the level at which they are taught.” As a logical matter, of course, we all know this doesn’t exactly make sense. After all, if kids “will perform at the level at which they’re taught,” why not teach fifth graders an MIT course of study? No, these claims don’t quite make sense. But it always feels good when we hear them.

As we’ll see, Eric Smith went well beyond these quoted statements in his background interview for Making Schools Work. But in the actual program itself, the superintendent was not alone in making such bold assertions. When Eric Smith makes the statements we’ve quoted, Hedrick Smith is talking about Charlotte’s Spaugh Middle School, “a nearly all-black school serving a poor neighborhood.” By normal reckoning, Spaugh is a school bound for failure. But Hedrick Smith speaks to Jerry Brown, Spaugh’s principal. And Brown describes the way Spaugh students “thrive:”

JERRY BROWN (Principal): One of the things that I learned about poverty is that kids that come from poverty thrive in structure. So that’s one of the things that we had to do very quickly, is establish structure and build structure into everything that we do. And I do mean everything that we do.
After Brown praises Spaugh’s varied practices—the practices that are letting its students “thrive”—Hedrick Smith asks the million-buck question. And given the history of American schools, Brown gives a startling reply:
HEDRICK SMITH: You say these kids can be educated. Is there a link between poverty and the ability to learn?

BROWN: Poverty and ability? No. No, and I can’t say that emphatically enough. No. There is no link between poverty and the ability to learn. There is a different framework for providing learning to those kids.

There’s no link between poverty and the ability to learn? The statement makes us perk up our ears. After all, something like such a punishing link has been widely observed in American schools; the link between poverty and measured achievement has been a central, intractable fact of life in American schools for many decades. But after Brown insists there is no link, we return to tape of Superintendent Smith—and he’s driving the point home again:
ERIC SMITH (continuing directly): The science that we were trying to build was one that said that the success of a school isn’t dependent on the children we serve. We can compensate for any deficiencies or additional needs children bring to us. Our job is to educate children to a comparable level, to a competitive level.
“We can compensate for any deficiencies or additional needs children bring to us!” So speaks the superintendent, discussing “the science we were trying to build.” In his background interview, Eric Smith defends the notion that teaching is a science—a science that almost seems to have been perfected in Charlotte’s schools. Indeed, here’s an apparently separate statement from the super’s background interview. Using language that is remarkably similar to that used in the statement above, Eric Smith describes Charlotte’s powers:
ERIC SMITH: Again, I think the success of a school isn't dependent on the children we serve. We can compensate for any deficiencies or additional needs children bring to us. Our job is to educate children to a comparable level, to a competitive level. What we did at Spaugh and many other schools was through good school leadership and through the work of the teachers.
“What we did at Spaugh?” The superintendent and the principal paint a sweet picture of the school. And Hedrick Smith jumps in at this point in Making Schools Work, touting the Charlotte-Meck miracle. “Over the past three years, Spaugh has been steadily improving student performance,” he gushes, apparently incorrectly. “But it isn’t just Spaugh,” he continues. “The entire Charlotte district has been on a steady, upward trend over the past nine years.”

It isn’t just Spaugh? Thank goodness for that! Because, as we saw in an earlier post, Hedrick Smith’s claims about Spaugh are deeply misleading—and the claims of Superintendent Smith and Principal Brown represent a flight from reason. For all the science Eric Smith wants to claim, Spaugh Middle School is recording extremely low passing rates on North Carolina’s mandated tests, and the passing rates have trended slightly downward (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/28/05). Indeed, the passing rate of Spaugh’s black students is far below that of black kids statewide. “There is no link between poverty and the ability to learn”—except at Spaugh, it would seem.

We’re not sure what motivates people to make such peculiar public statements—to make lavish claims for a public school system, claims which fly in the face of clear, well-known facts. Nor are we sure why Hedrick Smith sits there politely nodding his head while phantasmagorical statements are made about this school system’s “science.” In “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” Hawthorne described a man of strange science who ended up taking the life of his daughter. No, things weren’t that bad under Eric Smith’s reign; judged by the norms of American schools, Charlotte is clearly a half-decent system, perhaps a slight cut above many others. But as we’ll see, the claims Eric Smith has made here aren’t science—sadly, they seem like a form of fantasy. This leads us to a straightforward question: When will people like Smith, Smith and Brown tell it straight about low-income schools? More bluntly: When can we expect our public school leaders to be truthful in their public pronouncements?

TOMORROW: We run through some gushers.