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TEAM TEACHING! Gloria Balton defined a problem—a problem Michelle Rhee can solve: // link // print // previous // next //

WE LIED: We promised you some HOWLER HISTORY today. Taking mercy on all concerned, we finally decided we’d lied.

We’re back on Monday. Tomorrow’s Thanksgiving. We’re heading to (surprise!) South Carolina, where our niece got it into her head this year to become a perfesser lady. International health.

THEIR LATEST CON: We’d love to see a fuller discussion of Social Security and Medicare, inside or outside the context of the Clinton-Obama race. But Ruth Marcus gets some very low marks for today’s highly “responsible” attack on the badly “dishonest” Paul Krugman. Marcus offers quotes from Krugman’s past writings, suggesting he’s flipped on the question of Social Security. But one of her five vintage quotes from Krugman shows how these things often go.

Marcus is trying to show that Krugman’s a flipper—that he used to say there was a crisis afflicting Social Security. At one point, responsibly proving her point, Marcus quotes Krugman saying this:

MARCUS (11/21/07): "[B]ecause the baby boomers' contributions were used to provide generous benefits to earlier generations, there isn't enough money in the system to pay the benefits promised to the boomers themselves." (June 21, 2000)

That’s supposed to show that Krugman has flipped when he says there is no “crisis.” But here are the first two paragraphs of the New York Times column from which Marcus has liberated that quote:

KRUGMAN (6/21/00): Demographers describe the baby-boom generation as "the pig in the python": a huge bulge in an otherwise skinny age distribution, gradually moving down the distribution as the boomers age. As the pig's snout approaches the python's nether regions, it poses two distinct policy problems: a narrow "financial" problem and a broader "real" problem. But the debate in the [Bush-Gore] presidential campaign doesn't seem to be about either.

The "financial" problem is how to pay for Social Security. This problem is a legacy of Social Security's pay-as-you-go past: because the baby boomers' contributions were used to provide generous benefits to earlier generations, there isn't enough money in the system to pay the benefits promised to the boomers themselves. The good news is that solving this financial problem isn't all that difficult. Despite the apocalyptic rhetoric you sometimes hear, affordable injections of money would allow the system to run untroubled for at least 50 more years. It's just a matter of facing up to facts.

Uh-oh! In the very next sentence after the one Marcus quotes, Krugman said, back then, what he says today: “solving this financial problem isn't all that difficult.” (That is, “despite the apocalyptic rhetoric you sometimes hear,” there is no crisis.) Marcus, responsible adult that she is, has played a familiar old game.

We’d love to see a prolonged discussion of Social Security and Medicare. But when you criticize the lords and ladies of the Washington press corps, they tend to react in familiar ways, in ways they have long engineered.

We’ve described this game for the past ten years—but the highly responsible game never changes. Darlings, did you hear that Gore said he invented the Net? Did you hear what Paul Krugman once said?

TEAM TEACHING: On Monday night, we were struck by the NewsHour’s report on DC schools chancellor Michelle Rhee. We were especially struck by the following segment; John Merrow spoke with two administrators at low-income Anacostia High School:

MERROW (11/19/07): Gloria Balton is an administrator at Anacostia with the job of helping teachers raise performance.

BALTON: There are tenth-grade teachers with students reading on third-grade level. I don't have any third-grade books in this building to give to them.

MERROW: But Anacostia's problems go far beyond books.

LYNNE GOBER (principal): There are a lot of neighborhood issues that children are faced with. Several of the children take care of themselves. They take care of their brothers and sisters. Some of the students have to work in order to survive and to help their parents or to help the parent that they live with.

BALTON: You need more psychologists in the school. You need more counselors in the school, because when you can address the needs of the soul, then you can get them to perform.

Interesting! You mean there are tenth-grade students at Anacostia High who are reading on traditional third-grade level? And you mean their teachers don’t have appropriate, readable textbooks to give them—textbooks they can actually read and learn from? We cheered Balton, and agreed with her final statement—you should address the needs of these students’ souls. But you should also address their need for textbooks—readable textbooks, lots of such textbooks, dealing with appropriate topics. Anacostia High doesn’t have such books, if Balton can be believed. And she can.

When we taught in Baltimore’s public schools (mostly fifth grade), we were struck by this problem above all others (and by its near-relations). Indeed, we wrote about this groaning, unaddressed problem in the Baltimore Sun more than 25 years ago! (Excerpts below.) We were struck by Merrow’s report Monday night because Balton made such a spot-on observation—and because Rhee seemed to have no earthly idea about how to help students improve.

Throughout this program, Rhee didn’t say a single world about ways to improve DC’s instruction—by providing readable textbooks, for instance. Instead, her basic theory was defined by a succession of threats. Merrow opened with a creepy sequence. We seemed to see Rhee, on videotape, firing an unidentified principal:

MERROW: In Washington, D.C., the new leader of the public schools is putting her house in order.

RHEE (videotape, apparently speaking with principal): The bottom line is I don't believe that you are going to be the leader who is going to take this school in the direction that we need it to go in and have the highest expectations for the kids.

MERROW: Michelle Rhee spent the first weeks of the school year meeting one-on-one with all 156 principals under her charge.

RHEE (speaking to Merrow): In any other sector, employees are expected to meet certain outcomes or deliverables, and everybody knows that if you don't meet those numbers, you go. That's what we're creating.

RHEE (videotape): No. I'm terminating your principalship now.

MERROW: Any compassion?

RHEE: Compassion? I think that when you're doing the kind of work that I'm doing in public education, where the lives and futures of children hang in the balance, you can't play with that.

We’ll go along with that. But if the lives of children hang in the balance, what does it mean when you hire a chancellor who shows no sign of knowing how to improve their instruction?

Rhee’s whole theory seems to be this: As chancellor, she will threaten the teachers and principals—and they will then provide better “deliverables.” This is based on a tired old theory—the theory that teachers aren’t doing their best as things currently stand. This is a deeply cynical theory, offered here by a superintendent who seems to lack instructional ideas of her own. I will threaten the others, Rhee says. They will figure out what to do.

Nice work—if you can get overpaid for it.

In fact, this has always been the one-stop theory of urban education—a theory in which teachers are scape-goated. Back in the 60s, we were told this: Kids are failing in urban schools because the teachers are a bunch of racists. When it turned out that the teachers in a lot of our urban schools were black, we were told a second story: Kids are failing because the teachers aren’t trying. Rhee seemed to be working from that second theory all through Monday’s report.

Today, Rhee is stamping her feet at Washington’s teachers, assuming they’ll rush off and solve their schools’ problem. But, to cite just one basic problem, these teachers can’t produce their own readable textbooks. Gloria Balton cited a problem—but Balton has no way to fix it. Rhee would be able to address such a problem—but her mind seems to be somewhere else.

We groaned when DC hired Rhee despite her highly implausible resumé. Later, we saw her do an hour with Brian Lamb; we were very impressed by her leadership attitude. But on Monday, we seemed to have Rhee the Terrible she assumes that teachers just haven’t been trying—and that they’ll finally roll up their sleeves if she just scares them enough. But guess what? If your students are reading on third grade level, you really can’t give them good instruction if your textbooks are written on tenth-grade reading level! Monday night, Rhee showed no sign of knowing that—or much else, except the uses of fear.

WHAT BALTON SAID: How come Balton understands this problem but in high society, it never gets discussed? Decades ago, we spent a year studying the readability of Baltimore’s prescribed textbooks. Then, we typed this, in the Evening Sun:

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.

As we’ve said, few school systems will have courses of study as problematic as Baltimore’s was at that time. But as we continued, we described the way deserving kids who are poor readers frequently get a good deal poorer. Trust us—this happens today, at Anacostia High:

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.

Rhee takes pride in her no-nonsense outlook. But people, come on! Here’s where team-work comes in! Gloria Balton has defined a big problem—a problem Michelle Rhee can solve.