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NO FANTASY LEFT BEHIND! The New York Times is wonderfully sure about that achievement gap: // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, DECEMBER 8, 2006

NO FANTASY LEFT BEHIND: Gail Collins is wonderfully sure that she knows “Why the Achievement Gap Persists.” In fact, that’s the headline on the lead editorial in today’s New York Times. Why does this punishing gap persist? Collins is wonderfully certain:
NEW YORK TIMES (12/8/06): It’s impossible to brand No Child Left Behind as a failure, because its agenda has never been carried out. The law was supposed to remake schools that serve poor and minority students by breaking with the age-old practice of staffing those schools with poorly trained and poorly educated teachers. States were supposed to provide students with highly qualified teachers in all core courses by the beginning of the current academic year. That didn’t happen.

The country would be much further down the road toward complying with No Child Left Behind if the Department of Education had given the states clear direction and the technical assistance they needed. Instead, the department simply ignored the provision until recently and allowed states to behave as though the teacher quality problem did not exist. Thanks to this approach, the country must now start from scratch on what is far and away the most crucial provision of the law.
“The battle for teacher quality is just getting under way,” the Times types. And Collins seems to be wonderfully sure that this explains why the gap persists. “Teacher quality” is “far and away the most crucial provision” of No Child Left Behind, Collins says. She continues: “The country can either win that battle or watch its fortunes fade.”

As Wilfred Owen angrily wrote, long ago: “Dulce et decorum est/Pro patria mori.” More on this below.

Presumably, it would be a good thing to provide “teacher quality” to low-income schools—to make sure that low-income schools had “highly qualified teachers in all core courses.” (Whatever that means—we’re not sure ourselves.) But uh-oh! At one time, we ourselves were presumably such a teacher, right here in Baltimore’s elementary schools. We came from a full academic background, and, by this time, were rather experienced. And guess what? That wasn’t (and isn’t) enough! We were teaching delightful fifth-grade kids who were often reading on second- or third-grade level (or below), and for all our “high quality” ways, we couldn’t provide them with solid instruction. They couldn’t read the textbooks we had; it was hard to find readable supplementary materials (although we spent lots of our own money closing that gap); and they couldn’t really follow published instructional programs in math, programs which had been designed with higher-achieving kids in mind. And no, we couldn’t “write our own textbooks,” as Mrs. Young cheerfully suggested. (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/16/06. God bless Elizabeth Young!) In short, there are massive short-circuits in low-income education that have nothing to do with “teacher quality.” Collins doesn’t seem to know that. But then, we don’t think she’s been there.

In our view, editorials like this one are deeply immoral. But they’ve been piously typed for the past forty years. The only thing that has changed, through the years, is the high-minded solution that’s proffered —the “solution” offered by high-minded “liberals” who have never set foot in low-income classrooms. Their high-minded certainty has never wavered. Only their “solution” has changed:
“The country must now start from scratch on” eliminating racist teachers. No, wait:

“The country must now start from scratch on” providing racial balance among students. No, wait:

“The country must now start from scratch on” making sure that educational funding is equal. No, wait:

“The country must now start from scratch on” getting highly qualified teachers into classrooms.
Let’s assume that these are all worthwhile goals. (Though we don’t think it’s such a horrible thing when “black kids” to go to school with other “black kids.” Sorry—it’s just not that awful.) What’s immoral about editorials like this is the way they pretend to have simple solutions to a deeply entrenched, deeply painful problem. Their typists offer ardent glory—while making their own good intentions quite clear. But here’s a guess: Gail Collins doesn’t have the first clue about the real workings of low-income classrooms. But so what? For forty years, low-income kids have been pawns in a game—a game in which high-minded pundits, typing from Mars, assure us of their own admirable motives. “Highly qualified teachers in all core courses” may well be an excellent goal. But does the failure to meet this goal explain “Why the Achievement Gap Persists?” Surely, the gap will outlive the reform. In fact, it will snort at it—then keep on going. It’s absurd to claim that this failure explains “Why the Gap Persists.”

Is there any other subject where people write so much high-minded bull-roar? Where people offer such perfect certainty about subjects they understand so poorly? Where they keep offering such phony “solutions?” Collins writes in support of No Child Left Behind—and there are a few good parts to the program. (It’s painful, but important, to make schools report how well different groups of kids are doing.) But in major ways, NCLB was built on the same kind of fantasy thinking that drove the Bush Admin’s war in Iraq. The ardent Bushies simply proclaimed that all kids must achieve by 2014—and others agreed to ignore the odd thinking that lay at the heart of so weird a demand. Collins assails this odd mental style as applied to Iraq—but luvs it as applied to our low-income schools. In our view, this is a heartless, uncaring editorial. But then, pseudo-liberals have typed such pieces for the past forty years—and will probably still be typing them in the year 2046.

POSTPONED TILL MONDAY: The thoughts we had when we read Paul Tough’s useful report.

THE OWEN REPORT: Yes, we thought of Owen’s furious ending when we read today’s editorial. He spoke of the way we send youth off to war, not the way we posture about their schooling. So we’ll substitute “readers” for “children.” But the point stays the same:
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To [readers]ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie:
Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
Today’s editorial lets the reader thrill to a bit of desperate glory. It’s also the latest dispatch-from-Mars about the way schools really work. Whenever we read such high-minded certainties, we assume the writer hasn’t paced behind the wagons in which her “reforms” fail to work.

KRUGMAN GETS IT PARTLY RIGHT: Three cheers for Paul Krugman, for listing the names of some who got it right! He names Webb first, and Al Gore second. We wish he had yelled their names louder.

But we do think he left out the biggest part of this story. “At best,” these seers “were ignored,” Krugman says. “At worst,” they “had their patriotism and/or their sanity questioned.” But the most important, ongoing part is the way their good judgment is still ignored—and sometimes, is still mocked. (For example, by Cynthia Tucker.) We wrote about such mockery in yesterday’s post (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/7/06). We’re sorry Krug left that part out.

And then, of course, the perfect irony, found in Krugman’s closing paragraph. “We should honor these people for their wisdom and courage,” he says, speaking of those who were right from the start. “We should also ask why anyone who didn't raise questions about the war...should be taken seriously when he or she talks about matters of national security.” But uh-oh! Right next to Krugman, on this same page, are two big pundits who didn’t raise questions. They were wrong—and they’re telling us what to do next! Once again, we get “rule by the wrong.”

Three cheers for Krugman, for naming those who were right! We wish he’d complained about ongoing practice just a bit longer and louder.

WHY THEY DIDN’T RAISE QUESTIONS: We should never forget Jim Lehrer’s take on why his cohort didn’t raise questions. Why didn’t major pundits raise questions about the planned occupation? Matthews asked—and Lehrer answered. “It just didn’t occur to us,” he said. “We weren’t smart enough to do it.” That answer was perfect nonsense, of course—but Lehrer actually said it. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/17/04. This statement should long be recalled.

WHY NOT THE BEST DEFENSES: We remember how supportive we were when a friend was worried about SEC football. On the phone from Little Rock, he was troubled by the fact that Arkansas was going to open with Southern Cal again this year. “Hold on a minute,” we calmly advised. “These days, programs can change a great deal from one year to the next.” And do you know, our advice turned out to be right? Arkansas did do better this year. They only lost by 36 points. Last year, it was 70-7!

Which brings us around to a wonderful piece in yesterday’s Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Scott Cain was trying to figure out why the SEC never wins Heisman trophies. (Only one in the past twenty years.) “Interviews with voters, coaches and former players turned up several theories,” he reported. Eventually, though, he worked his way back to a piece of pure SEC logic:
CAIN (12/7/06): The most recurring conclusion is that the league is too tough for its own good, specifically that superior defenses make it impossible for the skill positions to accumulate award-winning statistics.
We never win because we’re too good! It perfectly captures the SEC world-view! "I don't think there's any doubt about that," Cain quoted Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville saying. "I've been preaching that all along...from top to bottom in our conference the defenses are just unbelievable.” Indeed, Tuberville always say stuff like this. And we’ll agree with “Coach” on one point. Sometimes, his circuit’s “defenses” really are a bit hard to believe!

For what it’s worth, several readers wrote this week, describing how much they’ve been hurt in the past by sportswriters’ endless pro-SEC bias. One recalled how 9-3 Auburn was ranked ahead of 10-3 Wisconsin in last year’s final polls—even after Wisconsin whipped Tommy’s tele-tubbies, 24-10, in the Capitol One Bowl. Out of conference, Auburn had beaten Ball State and Western Kentucky—and had lost to Wisconsin and to unranked, 7-5 Georgia Tech (at home). But so what? In sportswriters’ minds, it had happened again! The SEC was the best conference!

We planned to post those troubled accounts, showing the hurt that this problem can cause. But we thought that wonderful quote from Cain put the cap on this ongoing story.

SWAYED BY A CIRCUIT’S DEFENSES: From the AP account of the Wisconsin-Auburn game: “The Tigers were held scoreless in the first half for the first time this season and finished with only 236 yards. Wisconsin gained 548.” No wonder the SEC ended on top after sportswriters sifted those data!

For obvious reasons, Sagarin’s computer saw it differently. You know what to do—just click here.