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Daily Howler: Hedrick Smith didn't know the drill. This made the Drill-Down seem thrilling
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YOU KNOW THE DRILL (PART 1)! Hedrick Smith didn’t know the drill. This made the Drill-Down seem thrilling: // link // print // previous // next //

SHORT ATTENTION-SPAN THEATER (CAMPAIGN 08 EDITION): To us, it had the sound of apology. A few weeks back, Kevin Drum complained about all the information we’d been providing on low-income schools, suggesting we’d wandered a bit toward the weeds (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/14/05). And yesterday, we got an explanation for this complaint—it was because of Kevin’s excessive “blogging!” As it turns out, Kevin’s attention span has suffered because he’s been reading so many of these infernal blogs! Our presentations were too detailed, he said. Now, in a surprising reversal, he complains that most of these “blogs” aren’t quite detailed enough!

We raise this point for an obvious reason; we raise this point because every liberal should be preparing for the coverage of Campaign 08. As Media Matters pointed out yesterday, Chris Matthews and Norah O’Donnell were spinning potential hopefuls this weekend, and anyone can hear the shape of the coverage that may be forming. O’Donnell was reciting Standard Yak about how inauthentic Hillary Clinton is—and people like Matthews just can’t wait to start praising the brilliant traits of Saints McCain and Giuliani. Liberals are currently banging on Bush—perhaps without seeing what is to follow. Mainstream pundits still luvv Saints Rudy and John—and many of them, people like Matthews, are still in love with their scripted old putdowns of Hillary. When we see O’Donnell recite tired old cant about how “inauthentic” Clinton is, we Democrats should be concerned about the shape of the coverage to come.

This brings us back to the one problem we have with Kevin Drum. (We regard Drum as a superlative analyst.) Like others in the Career Liberal Cohort, Kevin simply never mentions what happened in the coverage of Campaign 2000; he never mentions the mainstream press corps’ War Against Gore, the war which sent Bush to the White House. In Kevin’s case, we can’t explain this extended silence; as a general matter, we have explained, a thousand times, why we’d suppose that Career Liberal Writers don’t like to discuss this key recent history. But because Career Libs have played dumb about this, we’re being set up for a fine repeat outing. No, we don’t think there will ever be another campaign like Campaign 2000. But if you read that transcript excerpt from Media Matters, you can see the possible shape of the Campaign 08 coverage. Libs and Dems have to get ready, now, to deal with what may come.

Which brings us back to attention-span issues. Starting in March 1999, we spent five years presenting a mountain of information about the way the mainstream press corps waged its twenty-month War Against Gore. But career liberal writers have kept their mouths shut, and most American voters have heard nothing about this. (Instead, they constantly hear about the corps’ liberal bias.) This has set us up for another round, in which Clinton is slammed as two-faced and inauthentic while we hear about the deep heroics of principled men like Saints Rudy and John. Now that Kevin understands the problems caused by his incessant blogging, maybe he can go back and read through the mountains of information we provided about Campaign 2000. Citizens won’t recognize a new pro-GOP script if they’ve heard nothing about the old ones. What a shame—that Career Liberal Writers have been such good boys, compliantly keeping their traps tightly shut, keeping the voters barefoot and pregnant, setting us up for what may be to come.

Joe Scarborough said it: If anyone had treated a Republican hopeful the way the mainstream press treated Gore, we’d have heard all about their vile bias. But voters have been kept in the dark about Campaign 2000—setting them up for more spin.

By the way, why didn’t John Marshall (another superlative analyst) discuss The War Against Gore in real time? It may have been a case of sheer ignorance! In November 2000, as it turns out, Josh had only heard of two political blogs—and THE HOWLER, which had been discussing The War Against Gore for almost two years at that point, wasn’t one of them! Let’s face it: If you read these “bloggers” long enough, eventually, you hear just about everything.

READ THE EXCERPT: Again, we strongly recommend that transcript excerpt from Media Matters. (You know what to do—just click here.) We’ve been having a lot of fun beating on Bush, watching his numbers go through the floor. But this is unlikely to carry over in the mainstream press coverage. Most likely, the lionization of his “maverick” successor is just about to begin.

Special report: You know the drill!

PART 1—THE DRILL ON THE DRILL-DOWN: For four decades, American scribes have looked, or pretended to look, for ways to improve low income/minority schools. The method is simple, and fairly obvious: They’ve looked for low-income “schools that work”—low-income schools with surprising, high test scores. And then they’ve tried to figure out what has led to the school’s success.

For this two-part procedure to work, journalists have to be able do two things. First, they have to identify schools whose test scores actually exceed the norm. And then, when they think they’ve found such a school, they have to be able to figure out what has led to the school’s high achievement.

As we’ve seen, Making Schools Work with Hedrick Smith repeatedly flunks the first task. A few of the schools the program examines actually do have high test scores (more on those schools to come). But more often, Making Schools Work examines test-score duds—schools or school districts whose test scores are ordinary, even, in some cases, quite bad. Example: Judging from the district’s test scores, there is no sign that the Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools have enacted a “small revolution” with “enormous implications for public schools nationwide;” indeed, one of the two Charlotte schools the program examines has test scores which are, in fact, quite dismal (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/17/05). Would you buy used “educational reforms” from a district with test scores like this? We wouldn’t, not in a million years. But then, mainstream news orgs have long delighted in presenting feel-good “schools that work” stories. Must they stretch a bit to locate such schools? Then stretch is what they’ve often done—and it often happens in Making Schools Work, including when the show goes to Charlotte.

So yes, Hedrick Smith is a bit of a credulous rube when it comes to those Charlotte test scores—scores which strike us as quite ordinary, but strike him as a “small revolution.” But then, Smith is also extremely credulous when he looks at Charlotte’s “educational reforms”—the educational reforms which allegedly drive the revolution he thinks he has found. Early in his segment on Charlotte, Smith examines Highland Renaissance Academy—a formerly low-performing, inner-city elementary school whose test scores jumped in the late 1990's (for full transcript, just click here). He asks a teacher why these score gains occurred—and gets an improbable answer:

HIGHLAND TEACHER: We saw a drastic, drastic change, just from school-wide effort. Everybody bought into what Dr. Bovis [the school’s new principal] was saying. And when you have everybody buying into what your leader is saying, then it works.
As we’ll see later this week, Highland’s test scores did go through the roof after Bovis arrived in 1998. (They remain extremely high to this day.) If those test scores mean what they seem to mean, then Highland has wrought a “small revolution”—and researchers should be crawling all over its campus, trying to figure out how it happened. But did that remarkable jump in scores occur “just from school-wide effort?” Did it occur just because everyone “bought into” what their principal was saying? Surely, there must be more to the story than that. And sure enough: Continuing directly, Hedrick Smith returns to the screen to explain a larger, district-wide program initiated by new superintendent Eric Smith at the time Highland’s test scores began to take off:
HEDRICK SMITH: In six years, Highland went from a failing school to a North Carolina “school of distinction.” But [superintendent Eric] Smith needed to drive his reform systemwide. To do that, he developed a process called “The Drill-Down.” It’s a highly-refined technique to track the progress of all students and all schools.
For the program’s next several minutes, Hedrick Smith and a string of teachers and administrators explain how Charlotte’s “Drill-Down” works. We’ll examine the process in more detail tomorrow. But as it turns out, the Drill-Down is a quarterly test—a test given every nine weeks, to all Charlotte students—designed to determine each child’s progress through the system’s curriculum. At one point, an assistant superintendent, Susan Agruso, explains the Drill-Down’s purpose:
AGRUSO: [Superintendent Eric Smith] knew that if you had information about student performance, you could then use that information to improve student achievement. And use it to understand what students did know and could do. And then use the data to figure out what they didn’t know and what you were going to do about it tomorrow.
Teacher and administrators appear on screen, telling Hedrick Smith how brilliant the Drill-Down is. And finally, after many explanations, Smith himself transports his viewers to Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s holy of holies. We see administrators around a large table as the narration continues:
HEDRICK SMITH: Welcome to the PMOC, the district’s top management team. The district’s senior executives all use the the Drill-Down to decide where resources are most needed—

WOMAN AT PMOC MEETING (videotape): Do we need rapid support? And where are the schools?

HEDRICK SMITH: —even sending educational SWAT teams into struggling schools.

It was almost like watching ER, or some kind of cop drama. “Rapid support”—“educational SWAT teams”—were being sent into schools as we watched! Soon, Hedrick Smith speaks with superintendent James Pughsley (Eric Smith’s assistant, then his successor) about the brilliance of the Drill-Down procedure. And then, within moments, we’re at Spaugh Middle School, being told that its low-income students are “thriving” thanks to this brilliant method. And let’s say it: If we couldn’t look up Spaugh’s test scores ourselves and see that this low-income school isn’t thriving, we ourselves might even have believed all the hype about those Drill-Down SWAT factors.

But alas! At THE HOWLER, we did look up Spaugh’s scores—and we saw that this low-income school isn’t thriving. In fact, we saw that Spaugh has very low scores, despite all the drill about Drill-Downs. But then, we had ruefully chuckled when Hedrick Smith spoke with those Charlotte-Mecklenburg “senior executives.” We ourselves have worked in a big urban system, and therefore know what Smith may not—that no matter how bad it may get in such systems, there’s always a team of loyal administrators ready to tell you, in endless detail, about the brilliance of their newest “reforms,” reforms which are, in every case, about to transform the whole system. And no, these people aren’t necessarily trying to fool you; in many cases, they really believe in their leader’s brilliant new methods. They make these plans sound like the Second Coming—and they can keep it up for days. But that doesn’t mean that the inspiring new plans really do make good sense, and it doesn’t mean that they’ll lead to big score gains. In fact, the “reforms” may be no good at all. If you’ve come to know this familiar drill, you try to judge that for yourself.

But uh-oh! As we watched Smith speak with these Charlotte “executives,” we thought we were watching the world’s oldest story. Does Hedrick Smith know anything at all about the way urban schools really work? To us, the Drill-Down didn’t sound real convincing; to our ears, in fact, it raised many questions. But none of those questions were posed by Smith, who seems to know little about low-income ed. And uh-oh! Those “senior executive” eyes were shining as they described the latest Great Plan, and we ruefully chuckled as inexperienced Smith seemed to buy every word that they said.

There’s one born every minute, Barnum said. No, no one was trying to sucker Smith when he took his program to Charlotte. But to him, the Drill-Down sounded very good. To us, because we know the drill, it didn’t sound like much at all. Has Charlotte come up with brilliant reforms? More on the Drill-Down tomorrow.

TOMORROW: In a word, underwhelming.