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EASY TO BELIEVE! It’s easy to believe–in miracles–when pundits discuss public schools: // link // print // previous // next //
WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 26, 2008

Postponements: Many top issues are being postponed as we head off for Thanksgiving. We hope to see tape of Mark Halperin’s comments about the past year’s election coverage; in the meantime, look in on Digby. (We still plan to record a few comments from Harold Evans’ panel on this same topic.) While you’re at it, you ought to check Digby’s post about a ludicrous op-ed piece which ran in Sunday’s Post. Digby’s tougher on Sally Quinn than we are; we think Quinn’s November 1998 report on the mood-of-the-Village concerning impeachment was one of the most important pieces of journalism in the whole 1990s. (We see it principally as a piece of reporting—and as reporting, it’s sensationally revealing.) But Sunday’s piece was astonishing nonsense. Let Digby be your guide.

That said, we were truly astounded by this post by one of our nominal allies. The question: Is the “Sarah Palin turkey thing” a real controversy or a fake one? We had to read the post twice to convince ourselves that our ally was coming down rather strongly for “real.” No, really—we had to read it twice. We thought we must have misread it.

Within the press corps, the culture of ridicule may have started with Candidate Dukakis, who looked so silly in that helmet and wouldn’t punch Bernie Shaw in the mouth. But this culture was directed aggressively against Dan Quayle—and then, a few years later, against Candidate Gore. In a fairly obvious way, our side has lost this game quite badly. We’re amazed when our nominal allies want to keep this silly culture alive. (As a general rule, our side wins when the discussion stays smart.)

On Monday night. Olbermann gave the turkey incident a full segment, offering one of the phoniest presentations we’ve seen on cable yet. At one point, he even asked the following question, with high acerbity. No, we aren’t making this up:

OLBERMANN (11/24/08): What has to happen behind her for her to notice?

Keith was making America dumber. And again: Our side has lost very badly during the reign of this silly culture. In effect, they traded us Quayle for Gore. It’s like what happens when a team’s worst player is told to get in a fight with a star. Both players get booted out of the game. They lost Quayle—and we lost Gore. And we all got eight years of George Bush.

Barring massive improvement in her game, Palin will be a marginal player in the years ahead. It’s sad to see progressive leaders so in love with the culture of ridicule that they extend it to such a lightweight. This culture makes America massively dumber—and it has mainly harmed us.

Special report: Back-to-school week!

Part 3—Easy to believe: It’s easy to believe—in miracles—when pundits discuss public schools. Example: In late October, Jay Mathews gushed over the “educational insurgency” of Michelle Rhee, the still-new chancellor of DC’s public schools. Indeed, he gushed over a entire “new generation of administrators, including Rhee,” who have “s[een] how teacher focus and energy could improve students' lives, and at the same time [have] learned how rare those traits were in low-income neighborhood schools.”

In Mathews’ piece, this is an heroic generation. To give you a fuller idea, here is Jay’s fuller description of this new generation of educators. This passage follows Jay’s account of a disappointing experience from Rhee’s brief (three-year) teaching career. There are heroes and villains in this portrait. It ain’t hard to see who they are:

MATHEWS (10/27/08): In an interview this month, Rhee said that jarring moment of hope followed by disappointment made her want to change the system. Many educators she knows who are also likely to run school systems someday tell similar stories. They saw how teacher focus and energy could improve students' lives, and at the same time they learned how rare those traits were in low-income neighborhood schools.

Such experiences create habits of mind and leadership qualities that inspire the most effective principals and teachers, but disturb many community leaders, politicians and educators who are used to standard operating procedures. This new generation of administrators, including Rhee, shares the prevailing cynicism about how school systems operate. But instead of going off to be lawyers, doctors or business executives as their parents wanted them to, they stay in education and violate or finesse normal processes.

You could call them the young entrepreneurs, the reformers, or maybe a name with appeal to friends and foes: the Brat Pack. They create excitement and enjoy a form of celebrity, but to many they are egregious annoyances. Rhee's new fame drew 700 applications last year from people who wanted to be principals in D.C. schools, hitherto not a popular spot for ambitious administrators. Her anti-bureaucratic instincts led her to dust off unused procedures for getting rid of unproductive teachers when the Washington Teachers' Union refused to accept such changes. Because she has seen improvisation work, she got outside foundation and university support for experiments—such as money for good grades—that others considered risky.

Of course, it’s mainly good to “get rid of unproductive teachers,” and “improvisations” like money-for-grades may have positive effects in some low-income schools—though no one who actually cares about outcomes will simply assume such a thing. For ourselves, we’re glad that Rhee has an aggressive leadership style—although we aren’t at all sure that her basic vision about low-income schooling is sound. But that’s a truly gushing portrait of Rhee and her insurgent “Brat Pack.” Its author seems remarkably sure of where the heroes are found.

That said, what makes Mathews feel so sure that the “Brat Pack” are the heroes? That their vision and their resultant approach are fundamentally sound? Here’s your answer: Rhee “has seen improvisation work,” Jay says. On that rock he builds his church. But is that foundation sound?

This brings us back to the foundational myth of the cult of Chancellor Rhee. As he starts his piece, Mathews recalls the disappointing moment which—as the story is endlessly told—fired Rhee’s unquenchable desire to “change the system.” Many pundits find it easy to believe in Rhee’s vision—and their apparent sense of certainty almost always turns on this tale. For ourselves, we were surprised to see Jay act as if this tale is established history. We were also surprised by the outright absurdity of some of what he describes:

MATHEWS: To understand D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee and the educational insurgency she is part of, you have to know what happened when she taught at Baltimore's Harlem Park Elementary School in the early 1990s.

The Teach for America program threw well-educated young people such as Rhee—bachelor's degree from Cornell, master's from Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government—into classrooms full of impoverished children after only a summer of training. “It was a zoo, every day," she recalled. Thirty-six children, all poor, suffered under a novice who had no idea what to do.

But within months, for Rhee and other influential educators in her age group, the situation changed. She vowed not "to let 8-year-olds run me out of town." She discovered learning improved when everyone sat in a big U-pattern with her in the middle and she made quick marks on the blackboard for good and bad behavior without ever stopping the lesson. She spent an entire summer making lesson plans and teaching materials, with the help of indulgent aunts visiting from Korea. She found unconventional but effective ways to teach reading and math. She set written goals for each child and enlisted parents in her plans.

Students became calm and engaged. Test scores soared. She kept one group with her for second and third grade. She was convinced that her students, despite their problems, "were the most talented kids ever." Then the real world intruded, a key moment for the entrepreneurial educators Rhee counts as friends. "All of those kids would go on to other teachers and totally lose everything because those teachers were" lousy. (Rhee used an earthier adjective.)

Jesus rose from the dead in three days—and under Rhee, “test scores soared.” This tale—of Rhee’s miracle cure—is told wherever her cult is sold. Plainly, Jay believes it’s true. At THE HOWLER, we pretty much don’t. (For the record: Rhee got her Harvard master’s degree after her three years of teaching.)

To understand Rhee, “you have to know what happened when she taught at Baltimore's Harlem Park Elementary,” Jay says. But what did happen in those three years; did miracles really occur? In our view, no one who actually cares about low-income schools will leap to such conclusions—or assume that the Brat Pack is on the right path because they have (allegedly) seen similar outcomes. As we’ve explained in the past, it isn’t clear—it isn’t clear at all—that Rhee produced the miracle cure she has boasted about all through her career (links below). And good God! Who but an adept could believe that miracles occur in the way Jay describes? Did no one but Rhee ever think of having her kids “sit in a big U-pattern with her in the middle?” Did no one else “ma[ke] quick marks on the blackboard for good and bad behavior without ever stopping the lesson?” Even assuming, as we do, that Rhee was a highly diligent teacher, the story Jay tells is the stuff of legend. This type of story is perfectly fine—in books written for eight-year-old kids. But it’s dangerous when we find it so easy to believe that we start revamping our low-income schools on the basis of such absurd tales.

In an e-mail, we asked Jay why he feels so sure that Rhee produced the astounding score gains she has boasted about through the years. In particular, we posed these questions about these alleged test scores—scores which couldn’t be documented or confirmed by the Baltimore schools at the time of her ascension to chancellor:

OUR QUESTIONS:

  1. Are you troubled by the fact that the scores were never produced?
  2. Did the Post ever ask the Baltimore schools to produce the scores?

Jay’s answers were helpful, though they leave some matters hanging. Here’s what he told us:

JAY’S ANSWERS:

  1. Nope, because I have researched test scores at that period in other parts of the country, and nobody has them, particularly on a per teacher basis. This was way before the NCLB era. Her story is very close to what I have heard from other Teach for America teachers of that era whose work has since proved, in the NCLB era. that their scores were probably what they said they were.
  2. We did, and discovered what I said above. Rhee herself said she never saw any scores in writing. It was all informal chit-chat stuff, with the central office people the only ones who had lists, it seems.

Do the data from Rhee’s tenure still exist? We have no idea. At the time of Rhee’s ascension, the Washington Times seems to have pursued this matter a bit harder than the Post; in a paraphrased passage, reporter Gary Emerling said that Baltimore’s current testing director “said retrieving data from a decade ago is hard because his office changed its information storage systems for the year 2000" (our emphasis). Is retrieving these test scores hard—or impossible? We have no idea. (Emerling included some hard data about third-grade achievement at Harlem Park as a whole—data which made Rhee’s claims sound a bit improbable. An aggressive journalist could surely pursue this type of analysis harder.) Meanwhile, Rhee has long made detailed claims about her students’ success. As the Post reported, her official resume had long asserted this: "Over a two-year period, moved students scoring on average at the 13th percentile on national standardized tests to 90 percent of students scoring at the 90th percentile or higher.” At best, it’s extremely irresponsible to make such detailed claims on the basis of “informal chit-chat.”

(For what it’s worth, it seems unlikely that “central office people” would have been “the only ones” who had the detailed, student-by-student data. Beyond that, we find it hard to believe that Rhee wouldn’t have wanted to know how her individual students tested, even after she’d left the school system.)

Jay is inclined to believe such claims, based on judgments he has made about other Teach for America teachers. Our inclination is vastly different, for reasons we’ve long described. But Jay is not the only scribe who’s inclined to accept Rhee’s claims on their face. When Fred Hiatt penned the recent Post piece in which he fawned about Rhee’s vision (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/24/08), he too seemed to be accepting Rhee’s claims at face value:

HIATT (11/10/08): Rhee offers the ultimate in no-excuses leadership. She has taken on one of the worst public school systems in the nation and has pledged to turn it into one of the best within a decade. The usual excuses made for such schools—that they cannot possibly do better because their students are poor, or come from broken families, or haven't been read to, or are surrounded by crime—Rhee does not accept. She has seen such students learn, Rhee explains, in her own classroom in Baltimore in the early 1990s, and in many other schools since.

Pundits seem to find it easy to believe these pleasing assertions. Jay cited Teach for America teachers, but as best we can tell, Teach for America has not been able to demonstrate outstanding systematic success. (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/14/08.) In our view, people who actually care about outcomes will be much more hard-headed about such claims. You see, it actually matters if these tales are true, because Rhee’s whole vision is built on notions derived from these uplifting stories. In Rhee’s world, teachers can produce miracle cures—if they just get off their keisters start working harder. (If they’d only make students sit in a U, they too could see those “test scores soar.”) Her insurgency seems to be based on the idea that teachers are simply refusing to teach. If we threaten them, fire them, scare them and bribe them, they’ll finally get off their lumps off lard and all will be well with the world.

We’re sorry—we just don’t believe that. We think that vision is vastly skewed—and it seems to be Rhee’s master vision.

Can teachers produce those miracle cures? Pundits love to believe such things; they’ve promoted such notions for decades. On that point, we also asked Jay why he included that frankly silly passage about having the students all sit in a U while making those marks on the blackboard. “My fault for not making it clear that that was just a couple of the things she did,” he replied. “The obsessive lesson planning and the individual student goal keeping were likely much more important to the progress she made, also the frequent contact with parents and the looping—sticking with the same kids for two grades.” But there too, many teachers (including us) have stuck with the same kids for two grades. This practice does not produce miracle cures unless the teacher’s a miracle worker.

It’s always possible that Rhee’s students achieved the gains she has claimed, of course—but we think it’s extremely unlikely. And let’s be real: Even if some teacher can produce such cures, that doesn’t mean anyone else can. Everybody can’t be Babe Ruth. You can’t assume that all your outfielders could hit 60 home runs if they’d just try a bit harder.

We don’t know Jay, but we share the old school system tie. (In 1965, we graduated from Aragon High in San Mateo, California. Through absolutely no fault of his own, Jay had to go to Hillsdale.) He’s worked on public school issues for many years; we’re frankly biased in his favor. But for decades, journalists have found it easy to believe miracle claims about success in low-income schools. In the case of Rhee, a whole insurgency seems to be built on belief in such claims. For that reason, a more typical brand of journalistic skepticism would very much seem to be called for.

“To understand [Rhee] and the educational insurgency she is part of, you have to know what happened when she taught at Baltimore's Harlem Park Elementary School in the early 1990s,” Jay wrote. Strictly speaking, that isn’t true—and it seems that we can’t really know what happened.. But as Jay suggests, her vision is built on faith in the notion that remarkable cures are there for the taking. If we care about low-income schools, we won’t rush to believe such ideas.

Next—Part 4: From Nossiter back to Kristof.

Visit our incomparable archives: We discussed Rhee’s claims in some detail when she was named to the chancellor post. For one example, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/2/07. If you search our archives on the word “Rhee,” you’ll find many more examples.