Daily Howler logo
YOUR HOWLER GETS RESULTS! Michelle Rhee vastly downsizes her tale. A big magazine doesn’t notice: // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, DECEMBER 5, 2008

Lyons knows fiction: In this post, Digby joins our earlier post in praising Matt Browner Hamlin, who correctly described the press corps’ impulse for engaging in “drama-projection.” Post ombudsman E. R. Shipp diagnosed this illness in March 2000, as her paper was making a joke of a crucial White House election. It seemed that the Post was “typecasting” a “political drama” rather than doing real journalism, Shipp said. (“As a result of this approach, some candidates are whipping boys; others seem to get a free pass,” Shipp correctly observed.)

But then, Gene Lyons, who pretty much got us started with his 1996 book, Fools for Scandal, offered the same sort of critique in his own column this week. We think you should read every word:

LYONS (12/2/08): As usual, the looniest stuff came from The New York Times’ resident clairvoyant, Maureen Dowd. As late as Aug. 20, she satirically depicted Clinton and McCain meeting secretly to plot Obama’s doom...In subsequent columns, Dowd informed readers that Bill Clinton “is surely jealous” of Obama’s vote-getting ability, that Joe Biden “would probably like a little less blond ambition at State so he could be the shadow secretary,” that Obama had to be leery of “a woman who clearly intimidated him... in the primaries” and so on.

As a trained literary professional, I can tell you what this is: It’s fiction, and poorly written fiction at that. Dowd would have been taught to avoid exposition in dialogue (characters telling each other the story ) in Creative Writing 101.

“Drama,” “fiction,” “creative writing?” Or maybe just “novelization of news?” (See Gene’s closing paragraph.) These are all variants on a basic idea: Increasingly, your “press corps” has abandoned the techniques of journalism, substituting the techniques and values of fiction or drama. It’s hard to get regular people to grasp the strangeness of this widespread approach. Indeed, the press corps’ conduct flies in the face of everything that might strike folks as credible.

With this gang, it’s novels, all the way down. But it’s hard to get people to understand that such an odd thing could be true.

Special report: Back-to-school week!

Why not read each thrilling installment: It’s easy to bollix reports on the schools. Enjoy each thrilling installment:

Part 1: It was easy to be hard when Nick Kristof scolded Obama. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/24/08.

Part 2: It was easy to be fatuous when Fred Hiatt prescribed reform. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/21/08.

Part 3: It’s easy to believe—in miracles—when pundits discuss public schools. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/26/08.

Today, in Part 4, we wend our way back to Kristof’s (know-nothing?) advice.

Part 4—Easy to know next to nothing: Your upper-end press corps is never more inane and inept than when it discusses low-income schools. Indeed, this problem rears its head again today, in this groaning editorial in the Washington Post.

Who should Obama pick to head the Education Department? As always, the editors invent a childish world, a world inhabited by two warring groups—the “reformers” and the evil-doers (“those more wedded to the status quo”), who are, of course, by the rules of the game, “allied with teachers unions.” The Post’s headline is stirring, and quite high-minded: “A Job for a Reformer,” it proclaims. The Post pretends to be deeply concerned. But it would be hard to overstate the childishness of this portrayal:

WASHINGTON POST EDITORIAL (12/5/08): The choice of Stanford University professor Linda Darling-Hammond to head the education policy transition group, along with speculation that she is a candidate for secretary or deputy secretary, is not reassuring to those in the reform movement. Ms. Darling-Hammond has been more critical than supportive of the No Child Left Behind law, dislikes linking teacher pay to test scores and is no fan of Teach for America. It would be a mistake to retreat from the accountability that No Child Left Behind has brought in improving learning and narrowing the achievement gap for minority students. And the next secretary should encourage the kind of innovation and entrepreneurship typified by Teach for America's success in attracting top college graduates to inner-city schools.

Uh-oh! Darling-Hammond isn’t “in the reform movement,” the editors proclaim. Indeed, she “is no fan of Teach for America,” they childishly say—and it’s clear that Teach for America is part of the “reform” crowd. But what if Teach for America's “success in attracting top college graduates” hasn’t led to real success inside our low-income classrooms? The editors call Darling-Hammond “no fan” of the program; in fact, her research suggests that Teach for America hasn’t produced the kind of results which its supporters claim.

You’d almost think that education “reformers” would want to know if that’s really true—if the program’s alleged “success” is only resumé-deep. But for decades now, the press corps has majored in happy talk when it considers the world of our low-income schools. Pleasing claims are accepted on face—then are trumpeted quite promiscuously. But is it true or is it false? Has Teach for America achieved in the classroom? There is rarely any sign that the press really cares about questions like that. When Darling-Hammond’s research suggests that the program hasn’t achieved, she is described as “no fan” of the program—and it means she’s opposed to “reform.”

But so it goes when upper-end swells stoop to chat about low-income schools. On November 13, Nicholas Kristof high-mindedly scolded Obama for (perhaps) putting education “on the back burner.” But when people like Kristof discuss public schools, do they really know what they’re talking about? Before we go back and take a look at the advice Kristof offered Obama, let’s consider this recent column by the Post’s Jay Mathews. In this piece, we see the level of skill the upper-end press corps typically brings to its discussions of low-income schools.

For the record, Mathews is one of the Post’s top education reporters. He has been on the beat a long time, and he’s quite influential. In this particular column, Mathews was also giving Obama advice about picking a Secretary of Ed; indeed, he specifically recommended Arlington County’s retiring superintendent, Robert Smith, whose achievements were said to be simply astounding. In this passage, Mathews enthused, at some length, about a possible Secretary of Ed:

MATHEWS (11/24/08): I hadn't checked Arlington's numbers in several years. Smith, of course, never called to brag about them. Last week, I asked county schools spokeswoman Linda Erdos to send me the data. I was vaguely aware that Smith had made some progress, but I was not prepared for the size of the gains.

From 1998 to this year, the percentage of Arlington students passing the Virginia Standards of Learning exams rose from 65 to 90 percent. The progress by minorities was even greater: Black students went from 37 percent to 74 percent and Hispanic students from 47 percent to 82 percent. All groups improved. Whites went from 82 percent to 96 percent, Asians from 69 percent to 95 percent.

On the gaps, Smith made me look like an idiot. The distance between non-Hispanic white and black passing rates was cut in half, from 45 to 22 percentage points. Between Hispanics and non-Hispanic whites, the gap shrank from to 35 to 14 percentage points.

Smith would say more has to be done and this was not his doing, but the result of hard work by teachers, students, parents and the county's very good school board. But he can't deny what he did to encourage such an effort.

We assume that Smith has been a diligent, admirable superintendent. But Mathews’ analysis rates a failing grade—and this sort of the work is routinely found on the press corps’ highest levels. Quite possibly, Smith “never called to brag about” his county’s achievement rates because he knew those rates were remarkably ordinary. But so what? Mathews had produced another feel-good report—a report which completely failed to capture the problems involved in interpreting test scores.

Yes, those achievement gains sound great—if you don’t know a thing about how to read test scores, and if you haven’t taken a look at the recent data available in this valuable page from the state of Virginia’s web site. (These data only involve the last three school years. For Arlington County’s data, click here.) In fact, Arlington County’s gains in passing rates seem to be closely matched around the state of Virginia—and the county’s passing rates among blacks and Hispanics are slightly lower than the passing rates for those groups in the state as a whole. In the 2007-2008 school year, for example, 76 percent of the county’s black students passed the state’s English/reading tests—but 78 percent of black students passed these tests in the state as a whole. The story is the same in math: In Arlington County, 69 percent of black students passed the state tests—but 73 percent of black students passed in the state as a whole. (Similar patterns obtain, in both English and math, for Arlington County’s Hispanic students.) These are relatively small differences, and further demographic analysis could make Arlington County look somewhat better (or somewhat worse). But Mathews seemed to think that Smith had achieved some sort of startling success with minority students. On the surface, he has not—and yet, this type of feel-good analysis was done at the top of our upper-end press corps, complete with a recommendation that Obama just might want to grab a star like Smith to serve as Education Sec.

(Two additional points: First, those gains in passing rate can be tricky. In math, the passing rate for Arlington’s black students jumped eleven points in the past two years—from 58 percent in 2006 to 69 percent in 2008. That looks great—until you see that the passing rate for black students statewide jumped by the same eleven points. This could simply mean that the state math tests got easier; absent a careful analysis, there is no way to know. Meanwhile, the shrinking of the gap in passing rates between whites and minorities may mean nothing at all, due to the so-called “ceiling effect.” Has the achievement gap between whites and minorities really shrunk in Arlington County? Simply put, there’s no real way to know from a test of this type.)

Good grief. But if Mathews can’t analyze these matters any better than this, what sorts of analysis are going on within the Post editorial board, whose members childishly picture a world comprised of “reformers” and hacks?

That asked, let’s return to our starting point. Let’s return to that earlier column in which Kristof lightly scolded Obama for (possibly) “downplaying” education. After his scolding, Kristof wasted a good deal of time, giving a bit of book report on a new but largely irrelevant book. Then, he have Obama his studied advice for improving our low-income schools. Here’s what he finally said:

KRISTOF (11/13/08): There's still a vigorous debate about how to improve education, but recent empirical research is giving us a much better sense of what works. A study by the Hamilton Project, a public policy group at the Brookings Institution, outlines several steps to boost weak schools: end rigid requirements for teacher certification that impede hiring, make tenure more difficult to get so that ineffective teachers can be weeded out after three years on the job and award hefty bonuses to good teachers willing to teach in low-income areas. If we want outstanding, inspiring teachers in difficult classrooms, we're going to have to pay much more—and it would be a bargain.

Relying on a study from a high-minded group, Kristof rattled off three “steps to boost weak schools.” All three steps seek to improve the quality of the teacher corps in low-income schools. This may well be a good thing to do, but Kristof seemed to know of nothing else that might improve low-income schools. This paragraph represents his whole attempt to “argue” for his three proposals.

Our best guess? Most likely, Kristof doesn’t know a lot about this particular topic. (There’s no reason why he should.) But this is the sort of work we often get when journalistic elites take a few moments to slum on the topic of low-income schools. The lack of intellectual effort is striking—and the recommendations are highly predictable. Meanwhile, the technical breakdowns will often be striking: They’ll present financial data which haven’t been adjusted for inflation. They’ll praise superintendents for amazing achievements—although the achievements are really quite average. When a professor studies a ballyhooed program, they’ll dismiss her as a union hack. They’ll take a school with the second-lowest reading score in the state—and praise it at the top of page one.

Kristof started by lightly scolding Obama. He then produced one paragraph of scripted advice. Is Obama short-changing the schools, as Kristof frets? For ourselves, we’d be inclined to say this: Press corps! Look who’s talking!

Your Howler gets results/Rhee edition: We’re not sure how Michelle Rhee got to be a Democrat. But inevitably, David Brooks praises her today in his column’s opening paragraph. We think you know the requisite lingo. Rhee’s a “reformer,” of course:

BROOKS (12/5/08): As in many other areas, the biggest education debates are happening within the Democratic Party. On the one hand, there are the reformers like Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee, who support merit pay for good teachers, charter schools and tough accountability standards. On the other hand, there are the teachers’ unions and the members of the Ed School establishment, who emphasize greater funding, smaller class sizes and superficial reforms.

During the presidential race, Barack Obama straddled the two camps. One campaign adviser, John Schnur, represented the reform view in the internal discussions. Another, Linda Darling-Hammond, was more likely to represent the establishment view. Their disagreements were collegial (this is Obamaland after all), but substantive.

Brooks is more mature than some, describing two camps: “reform” and “establishment.” But by the rules of the game, the Rhees and the Kleins support real reform, not the “superficial” kind. And, of course, the teachers unions are required to be on the wrong side.

We’re not sure how Rhee became a Dem, as Brooks seems to describe her. But we were struck by one part of Amanda Ripley’s profile of Rhee in the December 6 Time. Readers, your HOWLER keeps getting results! If Ripley’s account is accurate, Rhee has massively downsized her ballyhooed claims about her own glorious past:

RIPLEY (12/6/08): Rhee suffered during that first year [of teaching], and so did her students. She could not control the class. Her father remembers her returning home to visit and telling him she didn't want to go back. She had hives on her face from the stress.

The second year, Rhee got better. She and another teacher started out with second-graders who were scoring in the bottom percentile on standardized tests. They held on to those kids for two years, and by the end of third grade, the majority were at or above grade level, she says. (Baltimore does not have good test data going back that far, a problem that plagues many districts, so this assertion cannot be checked. But Rhee's principal at the time has confirmed the claim.) The experience gave Rhee faith in the power of good teaching. Yet what happened afterward broke her heart. "What was most disappointing was to watch these kids go off into the fourth grade and just lose everything," Rhee says, "because they were in classrooms with teachers who weren't engaging them.”

Say what? As we have repeatedly noted, Rhee has always made a much more grandiose claim about her success in the classroom. Indeed, when Rhee was tapped to head DC’s schools, the Washington Post quoted the claim from her professional resume: “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” (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/2/07).

That’s what Rhee had always claimed—and this highly implausible claim was ballyhooed by the hacks and the marks who love happy-talk about low-income schools. But in Time, Rhee’s claim has been ratcheted way, way down. As of June 2007, ninety percent of Rhee’s students had scored at the 90th percentile—or higher. Now, Ripley cites a vastly different claim. The majority of Rhee’s kids were at grade level, this new account modestly says. The down-sized claim is still taken as a sign of Rhee’s genius, of course.

Can that really be what Rhee told Ripley? If so, it represents a vast change in the reformer’s tale. But you know how your upper-end “press corps” works! Ripley ignores the change in this famous old tale, and doesn’t ask Rhee to explain it. Remember: Rhee is on the side of “reform,” like the folks at Teach for America. Her claims are thus taken at face value; when her claims change, scribes know not to notice. It’s Darling-Hammond who is so vile. Darlings, she has dared to question the tales your press corps loves to peddle!

There are few words strong enough to describe the misconduct which routinely flows in this manner. Low-income kids exist as props, to be used in the press corps’ heart-warming tales. If the tale is pleasing, it will be retold; those who challenge it get typecast as union hacks in the press corps’ Official Group Novel.

Yesterday, we thought of the press corps as we read poor Brian Greene, who was trying to deal with the shape of Einstein’s universe. Here’s what Greene (quite helpfully) says, in The Fabric of the Cosmos:

GREENE (page 47): The relativity of space and time is a startling conclusion. I have know about it for more than twenty-five years, but even so, whenever I quietly sit and think it through, I am amazed.

Instantly, Greene offers formulations which we think only muddle the matter. (“Each of us carries our own clock, our own monitor of the passage of time.”) But it’s very constructive when he expresses his sense of amazement at the structure of Einstein’s cosmos.

That’s pretty much the way we feel whenever we quietly sit and think about our education reporting. Is our world really a cosmic joke—a giant practical joke by the gods? Put another way: Can these hapless, compliant “journalists” really be actual humans?

They don’t know how to adjust for inflation. They don’t know how to interpret test scores. They cut-and-paste cant from educational groups, then scold Obama for his lack of diligence. And Rhee can say whatever she likes—just like the well-raised, slightly delusional Princeton types who hold court at Teach for America. If they say it, it’s assumed to be true. If you do research, you’re bad.

Einstein’s world is hard to process—but so is the world of this “press corps.”