KEVIN SMELLS A RAT: As he railed against slights to the state of Montana rendered during a lame Final Jeopardy, Kevin Drum—lounging in Orange County—was pretty sure he could sniff out a rat. Imagine our surprise when we read the following—a passage in which Kevin yells racist:
DRUM: Even though analogies in the blogosphere are akin to throwing chum in the water, let me offer one anyway. There are blogs that concentrate exclusively on the subject of Muslim terrorism and Arab perfidy. There are other blogs that devote their attention exclusively to the evidence of low test scores and other negative intellectual attributes of nonwhite people. What do we think of such sites?How brave! How bold! How daring! High-minded! Unfortunately, Kevin has a semi-annoying semi-habit of sliming people without naming names. (We all have our foibles.) As such, we quickly looked around to see who he could be talking about. And uh-oh! When we came to that comment about blogs that devote their attention exclusively to the evidence of low test scores, we had to suspect he might even mean us! Since other parts of his longer post dealt with press topics weve pursued through the years, we thought it might be worthwhile to respond to Kevins post—and to his sense of high odium.
Personally, I find them odious. It's not because there are no Muslim terrorists, of course, nor because blacks don't generally score lower on standardized tests than whites. It's because I find it creepy that anyone would devote all their attention to such things. They don't have to say they're racists for me to suspect that they are, indeed, racists.
First, why would a blog devote its attention exclusively to the evidence of low test scores? Kevin says he finds this creepy—but then, that might be the ignorance talking! Since weve spent tons of time on low-income education—and since Kevin displays no earthly sign of knowing the first minor thing about it—this is our chance to let him in on what sorts of things have sometimes transpired, in the past forty years, in states that may not be Montana.
Why does it matter when mainstream scribes type Standard Cant about low-income ed (as they have done for the past forty years)? It matters because of what often occurs inside urban, low-income classrooms.
For the record, every good liberal and every mainstream scribe has memorized the Standard Cant on this topic. They all know to make the Approved Pleasing Claims; they all know to say that low-income and minority kids do poorly in our urban schools because the teachers they meet in those schools have low expectations for them. And they know to offer some variant of the following speech—remarks made by former Charlotte superintendent Eric Smith in his background interview for the recent PBS show, Making Schools Work:
SUPERINTENDENT ERIC SMITH: I knew from Day One [in Charlotte] that all the kids could do the same level of work. They could accomplish it in the same time frame. In terms of calendar days they would respond to the expectation to work at an extraordinarily high level. I knew that Charlotte had the capacity to make that happen.There! It always feels good when people say it—even as they whisk us away to schools where the test scores are, in fact, very low (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/16/05). Indeed, over the course of the past forty years, pseudo-liberals and career mainstream writers have learned to type this cant, then move on. These pleasing claims represent the full text of their work on low-income schooling. This isnt Drums fault, but its partly his doing. After all, whens the last time you saw Drum (or anyone else at mainstream liberal sites) cogitate hard about urban schools or about the children inside them? Its a simple matter of fact: The liberal establishment gave up on low-income, minority kids at some time in the early- to mid-70s. Simply put, their life situations are never discussed. They play no role in Approved Liberal Discourse. Every three or four years, Jonathan Kozol writes a new book. Other than that, all is silent. Go ahead! Go to the standard liberal sites. See what you can come back with.
HEDRICK SMITH: But there are a lot of people in this country who say public education can't work and it specifically can't work for kids who come from minority families and high poverty areas.
SUPERINTENDENT ERIC SMITH: People who say that low-income children, minority children can't excel at extraordinary levels are flat-out wrong. They just haven't seen the evidence. And the evidence has to be seen with children that are given the kind of instruction that is required to allow children to excel at that level.
What I saw was two different games being played out in Charlotte. I saw a game of low expectations being played out And I saw a low level of performance. Kids will perform at the level at which they are taught. And if you teach at a low level you're going to get performance at a low level and you shouldn't expect any different outcome.
Of course, this doesnt mean that such liberals are evil or racist, although a fool could stroke his own thigh by issuing such a dim-bulb statement. It does mean that most of these liberals have never thought about urban schools; have no idea what transpires inside them; and have no real clue about what might be holding these schools deserving children back. For ourselves, we spent about a dozen years in the classrooms of Baltimores schools, then worked on various projects about them. That tenure ended a long time ago, but were troubled by performances like those of Eric Smith because of the misery, heartache and waste we observed while we were inside them. Weve seen those low-income kids sit and cry, even if lordly Drum hasnt.
Of course, when we arrived in Baltimore (in 9/69), we were know-nothing ingenues too. Yep! We too expected that we would find those low expectations for Baltimore students—low expectations from racist teachers. After all, we had read Kozols brilliant Death at an Early Age, which described a year in a Boston school, where a jaundiced, white teaching staff looked down on the schools black children. But uh-oh! When we started in Baltimores schools, all of the teachers were black except us! Its a little hard to keep believing that youre dealing with a gang of white racists when no white folk are even around—although those who lounge in Orange County can certainly keep hope alive on this topic. But when we taught in Baltimores schools, we found that that pleasing Approved Press Corps Cant completely misstated what we saw occurring. Persistently, we saw kids asked to do too much, not asked to do too little.
What often transpires in urban schools where the following situation obtains? (We presume Lord Drum will permit us this quote, since it comes from the Center for American Progress.) Repeat: What often transpires in urban schools where this situation obtains?
CENTER FOR AMERICAN PROGRESS: Young low-income and minority children are more likely to start school without having gained important school readiness skills, such as recognizing letters and counting...By the fourth grade, low-income students read about three grade levels behind non-poor students.That final claim is an obvious overstatement; obviously, not all low-income and minority children are three years behind by the time of fourth grade. But in our experience, similar situations did obtain, fairly often—and CAP seems to say that theyre common today. But what often happens to kids in that situation—kids who come from low-literacy backgrounds, kids who start school far behind broader norms? Heres what happens: Theyre handed textbooks they simply cant read. Theyre handed library books they cant enjoy (too babyish). Theyre asked to follow educational programs designed for kids who are much more advanced. Are they the victims of low expectations? In our experience, such kids were constantly asked to do too much—and because they couldnt read the books, because they couldnt keep up with the programs, they displayed that failure to thrive which has been puzzled about for decades when people, generally not Kevin Drum, deign to discuss urban schools.
Why would a blog want to focus on low test scores and challenge the highly pleasing CW of high-minded people like Eric Smith? Because it matters if Smith is right—because children sit in classrooms and cry when it turns out that he isnt. And the children involved dont just sit and cry; they fail to thrive (academically) in the process, as they suffer the pangs of that failure. Is this still occurring in urban schools? Thats one of the things well try to find out when we start our new low-income ed site. Presumably, some will complain—and will type Standard Cant—before they rush back to more-lordly topics. Some will complain—and will type Standard Cant. We hope Kevin wont be among them.
AND ABOUT THAT MSM: In the main, Kevins post dealt with liberal complaints about the work of the mainstream media. For ourselves, we think the liberal web is increasingly clogged with poorly-reasoned complaints about mainstream scribes. But here is Kevins basic complaint about the work that has long been done:
DRUM: It's not that pointing out the shortcomings of the MSM is out of bounds. Far from it. But when blog coverage of the MSM focuses solely on its shortcomings—as it generally does—surely it's safe to conclude that the blogosphere is not just practicing its own version of toughlove on a beloved but wayward institution. Rather, the blogosphere hates the MSM with a white hot passion.Its nice to be nice, but we find that passage semi-bizarre—although were pleased to see Kevin say that something was wrong with the coverage of Campaign 2000. Wed love to know what that could have been. Kevin rarely if ever mentions this fact—and he doesnt explain it here.
And that's long been my problem with what passes for media criticism in the blogosphere: it consists solely of scathing critiques and just about nothing else. And while it's true that recent events—Wen Ho Lee, the 2000 election, Judith Miller, Jayson Blair, Jack Kelly, Rathergate, and the Plame debacle, to name just a few—have made this kind of pit bull attitude both easy and appealing, that's hardly an excuse.
Why do we find this semi-bizarre? Yes, its very nice to be nice; indeed, when we started THE DAILY HOWLER, we included a feature called x gets it right, in which we explicitly praised big scribes who got some story right (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/8/99, with links to a string of previous posts). But as the months turned into years—as the coverage of Campaign 2000 turned into an astounding press story—it began to seem more and more absurd to spend time on such a feature. According to Kevin, the press corps bungled Campaign 2000, then bungled the run-up to war in Iraq. Would it be strange for a site to focus on that without, somehow, feeling obliged to praise famous scribes when they get something right? After all, famous scribes are supposed to get things right! Whats wrong with focusing on something else—on a remarkable, history-changing situation? Why would someone need an excuse to focus on matters like that?
Simply put, the mainstream coverage of Campaign 2000 is an astonishing, still untold story. It isnt clear who Kevin is criticizing in his remarks about liberal press criticism. But let us just explain our problem: In part, weve had to scream and turn handstands about Campaign 2000 because the Kevin Drums of this world have simply refused to say Boo about it. To this day, he has said next to nothing about this remarkable topic (and about the Clinton pseudo-scandals which preceded it)—as have almost all liberal elites. In so doing, they have failed to serve your interests (and those of the general public). But by the way, wasnt it awful about Final Jeopardy? To Kevin, lounging in Orange County, that did seem worthy of note.
LOVE AND HATE: For ourselves, we dont hate the MSM with a white hot passion, or any other way, for that matter. But then, we dont consider it a beloved institution, either. Why must such passions be involved in this? For us, this hasnt been about either emotion; it has been about the deeply puzzling, unexplained drift of our history. Yes, our recent history, lost, stolen and strayed—and covered up by our liberal elites.
WELL HAVE TO POSTPONE: Cover your ears! Hide the children! We intend to return to that Wall Street Journal piece about results of the latest NAEP TUDA. In our view, this piece includes basic elements of Standard Cant on these matters—but then too, a key fact about Charlottes successes! But cover your ears! Hide the kittens! We plan to continue discussing the lives of low-income children—the lives you never hear discussed where Kevin now plies his fine trade. Go ahead—visit those high-minded journals. See just how much you come back with.