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TALKING TOUGH (PART 1)! Paul Tough’s soft piece in Sunday’s Times is extremely important: // link // print // previous // next //
TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 28, 2006

YOU OUGHTTA KNOW: After yesterday’s post (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/27/06), we briefly revisited the 1994 public discourse about “midnight basketball.” We really thought you ought to consider a bit of what we observed.

In Saturday’s New York Times, Thomas Edsall warned Dems to stop making such proposals, even though they may represent the “pursuit of laudable goals.” After all, Edsall noted, “conservative talk radio” will trash such ideas; the trashing will “spread to the establishment media, and soon became a liability.” As we noted, this is a perfect history of our recent politics—and it’s a perfect history of the way the establishment media has learned to bow low to pseudo-con power. Edsall seems to take it as a given: His colleagues won’t defend the pursuit of laudable goals. Instead, they’ll simply repeat What Rush Says, even when he trashes such efforts.

In precisely that manner, the crackpot forces in American politics seized control of the public discourse during the early Clinton-Gore years. Yesterday, our brief research showed that “midnight basketball”—Edsall’s chosen topic—was an especially good example of the way this process has worked.

What did we think you ought to consider? We were struck by a short, unsigned report in the 8/17/94 New York Times. The Times report noted an interesting fact—the previous Republican president had also approved of midnight basketball:
NEW YORK TIMES (8/17/94): The Republicans who maintain that President Clinton's stalled crime bill is loaded with excessive social spending often point to a provision for midnight basketball as a prime example of waste.

What they may not know is that the idea of midnight basketball was promoted by George Bush when he was President. In fact, Mr. Bush, a Republican, was so impressed with a midnight basketball program in Maryland that he named it as one of his Thousand Points of Light.

"The last thing midnight basketball is about is basketball," Mr. Bush said when he visited the program in 1991 in Glenarden, Md., home of the first midnight basketball program in the nation.

Representative Steny H. Hoyer, a Democrat who represents that district, quoted the former President's remarks on the House floor today.

“Mr. Bush named the program his 124th point of light,” the Times noted. And the paper quoted more of Bush’s 1991 statement: "Here, everybody wins. Everybody gets a better shot at life."

Fascinating, isn’t it? Before Bill Clinton showed up at the White House, the sitting Republican president applauded this program. But when Clinton proposed modest funding in its support, “conservative talk radio” began to trash it, in ways that were often racially coded; according to Edsall, these attacks “spread to the establishment media,” making the proposal a liability for Clinton. But Edsall doesn’t criticize his establishment colleagues for adopting these pseudo-conservative values; instead, he implores the Democrats to never-again pursue such laudable goals. As such, Edsall’s column becomes a perfect portrait of the way our discourse was lost in this era—of the way a new wave of pseudo-conservatives seized control of the public discourse, with the willing acquiescence of Edsall’s weak-willed cohort. By 1999, Edsall’s establishment colleagues were happily conducting their War Against Gore, taking their talking-points from Jim Nicholson, the endlessly dissembling RNC chairman. After twenty months of such crackpot behavior, they’d sent another Bush to the White House—and he sent us to a new Vietnam.

In short, before the “conservative revolution” of the early Clinton years, everyone thought well of midnight basketball. But soon, a group of loudmouth kooks weighed in—and the Edsels of the establishment media began to suffer the endless breakdowns which have shaped our politics right to this day. Even today, Edsall can’t see the peculiar shape of the history he relates. Even today, he begs the Democrats: Please don’t incite those talk-radio hosts! In the name of all that’s convenient, don’t pursue “laudable goals!”

Special report: Let’s talk Tough!


PART 1—TOUGH GOES SOFT: Paul Tough’s detailed report on urban schools is 100 percent worth reading. But sometimes, the Times Sunday magazine seems to be written for people who are remarkably slow—and who have been off the planet. That thought came to mind when Tough explained—eyes seeming to pop—why low-income kids have much smaller vocabularies, at 3 years of age, than their middle-class peers. He cites two Jayhawk child psychologists, Betty Hart and Todd Risley:
TOUGH (11/26/06): When Hart and Risley then addressed the question of just what caused those variations, the answer they arrived at was startling. By comparing the vocabulary scores with their observations of each child's home life, they were able to conclude that the size of each child's vocabulary correlated most closely to one simple factor: the number of words the parents spoke to the child. That varied greatly across the homes they visited, and again, it varied by class. In the professional homes, parents directed an average of 487 ''utterances'”—anything from a one-word command to a full soliloquy—to their children each hour. In welfare homes, the children heard 178 utterances per hour.
But was anyone “startled” when they read that “answer”—when they read that low-income kids have smaller vocabularies because they’re spoken to so much less often? This article is very much worth reading—but we did have to chuckle at that.

But then, we were also surprised when Tough played it soft with the educational establishment—with the educational “experts” who have brought us so much insight and progress. In particular, the author wouldn’t play tough with the Education Trust, a DC-based group of such experts. “There is, in fact, evidence emerging that some schools are succeeding at the difficult task of educating poor minority students to high levels of achievement,” Tough wrote. Then, he cited a study:
TOUGH: One well-publicized evaluation of those questions has come from the Education Trust, a policy group in Washington that has issued a series of reports making the case that there are plenty of what they call ''high flying'' schools, which they define as high-poverty or high-minority schools whose students score in the top third of all schools in their state. The group's landmark report, published in December 2001, identified 1,320 ''high flying'' schools nationwide that were both high-poverty and high minority. This was a big number, and it had a powerful effect on the debate over the achievement gap.
Wow! There were 1320 “high-flying” low-income schools, the Trust’s report had said! “The pessimists...were dealt a serious blow,” Tough continues. “If the report's figures held up, it meant that high achievement for poor minority kids was not some one-in-a-million occurrence; it was happening all the time, all around us.” But sadly, the Trust’s figures didn’t hold up. Tough continues—and speaks rather softly. No fair talking tough to Big Players!
TOUGH: But in the years since the report's release, its conclusions have been challenged by scholars and analysts who have argued that the Education Trust made it too easy to be included on their list. To be counted as a high-flier, a school needed to receive a high score in only one subject in one grade in one year. If your school had a good fourth-grade reading score, it was on the list, even if all its other scores were mediocre. To many researchers, that was an unconvincing standard of academic success.
But was that standard just “unconvincing?” And did it really take “the years since the report’s release” for “many” researchers—not all—to “argue” this claim? Our question: Who wouldn’t have seen, in the first thirty seconds, that this was an utterly laughable “standard?” Tough explains what became of the Education Trust’s figures when people stopped playing the fool:
TOUGH: Douglas Harris, a professor of education and economics at Florida State University, pored over Education Trust's data, trying to ascertain how many of the high-flying schools were able to register consistently good numbers. When he tightened the definition of success to include only schools that had high scores in two subjects in two different grades over two different years, Harris could find only 23 high-poverty, high-minority schools in the Education Trust's database, a long way down from 1,320.
Oops! It wasn’t 1320 schools—it was just 23! But so what? That’s close enough for urban educational work—if you’re the kind of weak sob-sister who wants to churn feel-good data about urban schools even at the cost of gross misdirection. The Education Trust should be laughed out of town for gimmicking up such syrupy data. We were disappointed to see Tough go soft as he told this instructive tale.

But then, Tough was also too nice for our tastes when he described the oddball “thinking” which informed No Child Left Behind. Early on, he described the famous program’s “most revolutionary provision:”
TOUGH: When the law took effect, at the beginning of 2002, official Washington was preoccupied with foreign affairs, and many people in government, and many outside it too, including the educators most affected by the legislation, seemed slow to take notice of its most revolutionary provision: a pledge to eliminate, in just 12 years, the achievement gap between black and white students, and the one between poor and middle-class students. By 2014, the president vowed, African-American, Hispanic and poor children, all of whom were at the time scoring well below their white counterparts and those in the middle class on standardized tests, would not only catch up with the rest of the nation; they would also reach 100 percent proficiency in both math and reading. It was a startling commitment, and it made the promise in the law's title a literal one: the federal government would not allow a single American child to be educated to less than that high standard.
By 2014, all American kids—including all minority children—would achieve proficiency in reading and math! Politely, Tough calls this a “revolutionary provision” and “a startling commitment.” In fact, this “commitment” was “startling” only because it so plainly came straight from the cuckoo’s nest. Tough notes the extremely minimal progress that has been made toward this ludicrous “goal”—after failing to offer tough talk about the sheer absurdity of Bush’s “commitment.” Like the president’s mission in Iraq, No Child was always based on oddly delusional “thinking.” Simply put, it was wrong from the start.

So yes, we think that Tough was too nice in several parts of his lengthy report. But his report is 100 percent worth reading—especially since it appeared on a day when the Washington Post continued to showcase its own feel-good follies about urban schooling. Will we ever value low-income kids enough to tell the truth about their predicament—to talk tough about feel-good, delusional thinking? If so, some of the info in this Tough report may show us where to begin.

TOMORROW—PART 2: Where do children’s words come from?