PARSE TILL YOU DROP! Vacuous pundits are still parsing hard. This week, skilled progressives pushed back: // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, DECEMBER 12, 2008
The latest in high Gotham magic: Wow! Results are often very bad when Gothams upper-end press corps discusses affairs in the schools. This editorial, in todays New York Times, is the latest example.
The editors seek a worthy goal. When school districts hire new teachers, the editors want them to have a way to predict which teachers will be more effective. As a goal, this makes perfect senseand huzzah! Louisiana has devised a new system for doing this, the Times proclaims. In what follows, the editors discuss a new Bayou State program. As they do, they sound a bit like a gang of Gotham rubes:
The state will keep track of how well graduates of various teacher-prep programs actually do in the classroom. And huzzah! On the basis of those records, school districts [will] know which institutions graduates to avoid and which ones to hire for which subjects. This sounds like a great ideainside a mahoganied editorial board, a million miles away from the action. But uh-oh! What if (as is abundantly likely) graduates of various teacher-prep programs produce achievement rates in the classroom which are roughly equal? This fairly obvious possibility doesnt seem to have entered the editors heads. And yet, out in the actual world, we would say this result is quite likely. This striking innovation may well be worth trying. But it may not help out all that much.
But so it goes when Gotham elites discuss the public schoolsthe ones theyve rarely set foot in. As they continue, the editors show their lack of sophisticationperhaps, their lack of concern:
As usual, we find ourselves inside the latest ad for the Teach for America program. TFA is affiliated with The New Teacher Projectand new teachers from the latter entity were more effective at teaching math, reading and language arts than others with two or more years of experience, the editors say. But how much more effective were graduates of The New Teacher Project? As is quite common in writing like this, the editors dont say. And yes, that sort of thing does matter. This is clear as the editors proceed:
The editorial continues as TFA ads often dowith a citation of that North Carolina study. Teach for America participants...had a more positive impact on student performance than traditional teachers, the editors say. The difference was evident in several areas of science and was strongest in math. But again, the editors fail to say how big that positive impact washow much of a difference the study recorded. And as we learned when we looked at this matter in July, the actual difference seems rather small, although this particular studys presentation is highly technical (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/14/08). Adding classroom variables reduces TFA effects to about 0.07 standard deviations, this study says, on page 22. Did the editors know what this means?
In this much-cited Tarheel State study, TFA teachers seemed to do slightly better than non-TFA peerson the high school level only, only in science and math. (We would guess that TFA grads would be better suited for high school teaching, less so for elementary schools. That would have to be tested, of course.) Meanwhile, in another study whose results are easier to report, TFA teachers did no better than non-TFA teachers in the teaching of reading, and only somewhat better in mathshowing an advantage over non-TFA peers that was extremely small (once again, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/14/08). Other studies have shown other outcomes. But in the current, weirdly politicized atmosphere, TFA fans seem inclined to cite only those studies which can be used to make the program look best.
Does any of this actually matter? As with so much upper-class writing about public schools, this editorial ends up sounding like an ad for TFA, a program which may have something to offer but seems to be nobodys world-beater. Teach for America has a big role to play in the effort to improve teacher preparation nationally, the editors pleasingly judge. But is that a well-considered, valid conclusion? In these contexts, it doesnt make sense to say that TFA teachers had a more positive impact on student performanceunless youre actually willing to say how big that positive impact was. It doesnt make sense to quote the favorable studiesand to forget the others. And it doesnt make sense to grant TFA a big role in the future of public edunless youve carefully assessed the programs apparent successes and failures. But then, it didnt make sense to pipe-dream about that new program in Louisianato assume that well find big gaps between teachers from different teacher-prep programs, the kind that will magically help school districts know which teachers to hire. In editorials like this, Gothams journalistic elite keeps imposing a weird sort of politicization on its discussions of public ed. (TFA must always be the answer.) And the Times keeps showing how low its intellectual standards are for discussing the public schools.
As conservative elites continue to worry about Obamas choice for Secretary of Ed, a bunch of odd educational writing has popped up in the press. Well plan to look at some of these pieces next week. Well probably start with Malcolm Gladwell, whose vast success must involve some luck, based on certain puzzling sections of this New Yorker piece.
By the way: That Louisiana program may well be worth a try. And TFA may well be helpful in various ways. But journalistic elites are often drawn to magical tales when they discuss the public schools. And for some reason, they love to enable TFAs more ridiculous claims. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/16/08, for our full five-part series.
Parse till you drop: Well admit itwe were surprised by Gene Robinsons column in this mornings Post. Robinson pimped Candidate Obama all through the two-year White House campaign. But this morning, he follows elements of the upper-class press corps down a familiar, destructive path. Many people are dead because of such work. Here is the start of his column:
Truly, wed call that strange. Robinson says the Blagojevich matter involves Obama in only the most tangential way. Indeed, the matter actually seems to cast him in a favorable light. He says Obama has been careful not to get ahead of the facts or make declarations that might later have to be retracted. And then, of course, theres what happened yesterday: Obama said, once again, that he himself had no discussions about this matter with Blagojevichand he said hed release the record of staff discussions over the next few days. And yet, this just isnt good enough, Robinson weirdly decrees in this piece. It would be good enough for other pols. But its not good enough for Obama.
Good enough for othersbut not for Big Dems! Weve seen that standard applied before! Soon, Robinson is playing the familiar games of parse-till-you-drop and say-how-it-seems, the familiar games which have been on display in press corps venues this week:
We wont waste our time explaining how silly that peck-of-parsing is. In essence, Robinson doesnt understand why Obama hasnt yet voiced every thought which has come into Robinsons head. One answer to that question is obvious: Robinsons an MSNBC analysts, Obama is an incoming president. (The two gents are on different levels.) But nothing stops these under-skilled hacks from playing their endless parsing games. All over the world, people are dead because of this conductconduct which drove the politics of the disastrous Clinton/Bush era. But even now, the parsing pundits wont stopeven the pundits who pimped Obama for two solid years.
Even today, people like Robinson parse till they drop. Its simply too much to wait a few days to get a full report of what happened (at which time scribes might decide that Obamas report is insufficient). They want their answers right flat nowthe answers to questions that litter their heads. They parse, and ponder, and puzzle againas they have parsed in the past.
By Robinsons admission: It would be good enough for most other pols. But as always, it aint good enough for the current Big Dem.
The parsers were active on cable last night, at least in certain precincts. On 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, David Shuster made a fool of himself, with Joan Walsh and Lawrence ODonnell politely trying (a bit too politely) to show him how foolish he was. Bill OReilly was inexcusable in his programs opening segment, inventing a dream from 2002. Even on The NewsHour, Elizabeth Brackett couldnt stop the parsing when she answered Ray Suarezs first question. In this passage, she discussed Obamas press confab:
Actually, no. Given the press corps incessant scandal-culture, you really dont have to wonder why Obama wont release the information until some point over the next few days (the phrase he actually used). Beyond that, you dont have to turn the next few days into several, then turn several into three or four, thereby heightening your sense of puzzlement at the way Obama is dragging his heels. Brackens quite-typical number-play shows the corps at its silly, small worst. People are dead all over the world because they love these games so.
Why might Obama wait a day or two to release that information? (Actual statement: I've asked my team to gather the facts of any contacts with the governor's office about this vacancy so that we can share them with you over the next few days.) We have no idea, but being sane, the gentleman will likely want to be sure he has all the facts nailed down. Cautionary tale: Al Gore reacted quickly in March 1997 to Bob Woodwards unflattering fund-raising article. When he did, the press corps found major fault with a few things he said. They then complained, for the next several years, that Gore had reacted too quickly. Now, Obama is reacting too slowlyand Bracken transforms the next few days into the troubling three or four. In this way, they parse till they dropand until other people drop too. People are dead all over the world because they engage in this bull-roar.
You see, this is the way these people parsed all through the Clinton-Gore era. There was always something microscopically wrong with the various things Clinton/Gore/Clinton said. They parsed, and they parsed, and they spun and attackedand in the process, sent Bush to the White House. (Al Gore said he inspired Love Story!) Youd think those dead people all over the world would help these people rethink their approach. But the Harwoods, the Shusters, the Wolffes and the Bracketts were all parsing hearty last night. This was the utterly hapless Shuster beginning last nights entertainment:
Instantly, Shuster offered lurid speculations about Valerie Jarretts misconduct. (Was Obama`s top adviser Valerie Jarrett one of the Washington participants on that crucial Blagojevich conference call, or did somebody tell her about that call?) Why, the degree of speculation was so inane that poor Mike Isikoff had to man up and tell the poor guy to calm down!
People are dead all over the world because these people behaved this way all through the 1990s.
At any rate, the pundits have been parsing hard all week, sifting through some very thin gruel. But one thing has changed since the 1990s. To appreciate that change, just click here:
What was different this past week as various pundits parsed-till-they-dropped? Omigod! There was push-backskilled, intelligent push-backall around the liberal web! Up above, we linked you to Boehlert and Jamison at County Seat; theyve done extremely skilled work on this parsing all week long. We suggest you click that link and thank God for the skill theyve displayed in those posts. And Jamison and Boehlert link you to others who have done the same sort of work: To Sargent, to Hamsher, to Dan Kennedy; to a longer string of liberal bloggers just from this one post alone. (Also, be sure to treat yourselves to this skilled post by Eric Alterman. And for our money, Digby has been all over this nonsense all week.) Amazingly little such work existed when this same gang of parsers went after Clinton, then lit out after Candidate Gore. Clinton and Gore got almost no help. Result? George Bush ended up in the White House. Many people ended up in the ground.
The parse-till-you-drop set is still parsing hardbut the progressive world is massively smarter. The liberal world has gained a great deal of skilland its found all over those posts. But even as we tell you that, we will ask you to consider some nominal allies. Why is that skill all penned up on the web? Why cant it find wider venues?
Consider, for instance, this column today, by E. J. Dionne, in the Post. All over the web, highly skilled people are pushing back hard against all the silly-bill parsing. But go aheadread Dionnes piece! Would you even know theres been a problem with all the parsing this week?
Dionne is very smart, and decent. But hes also an overpaid career liberal, and he lives inside the Village. He never offered a peep of complaint during the long twenty months when his friends and colleagues were taking down Gore. George Bush is in the White House because of his silence. Many others can be found in the ground.
Dionne is silent again today. And then, consider two others.
Lets start by listing at least three things Rachel Maddow does exceptionally well. She books superlative guests for her programthe best selection of guests on cable. When she stops her incessant joking (perhaps its a matter of taste), she interviews those guests exceptionally well. And when she reins in her joking, she knows how to explain news topics better than anyone else on the air. We gave up on Olbermann long ago. But Maddows a whole different critter.
That said, heres a question: Did you see either Maddow or Olbermann pushing back against all that parsing this week? Pushing back in the highly-skilled, name-naming way that occurred all over the web?
For ourselves, we didnt see that happening on either one of these programs. We saw Olbermann clowning, as he incessantly does. By contrast,we saw Maddow do a lot of good workonce we managed to forget that gruesome session with Isikoff. But did you see her confront the parsing, as Boehlert and Foser (and others) have skillfully done? Did you see her bring guests on the air who would discuss the parsersby name? Who would discuss Sidoti and Kornblut and Yellin and (Rick) Klein, as Boehlert and Foser have done? Who would discuss Howard Kurtz? Who would discuss silly Shuster by name? Who would discuss, naming real names, what the culture of parsing has done? Who would go on the air and explain how this worked in the vile 1990s? When Al Gore got taken down because career liberals just wouldnt push back?
Please dont yell at uswere just asking! But for our money, we didnt see it. KeithO makes $7 million a yearand he was railing about Hall of Fame voting. (Last night, he thoroughly wasted at least half his show. Although we rubes got our requisite joke about Palins wardrobe.) But then, many people will doand avoidmany things to come by such pay-checks.
The liberal world has developed great skill when it comes to debunking the culture of parsing. Isnt it time these skills got aired in the venues where nominal allies are pulling down such giant pay-checks? Why is all this skill penned up and hidden away on the liberal web? Isnt it time we took these skilled players and let them tell the truth on the air?
Lets play dodgeball: Heres how Maddow presented the problem last night. Wed call this a Standard Mainstream Press Dodge, one weve discussed for a decade:
Maddow went on to parody the silliest parsingafter explaining that it has been done by a few Republicans and some conservative columnists. Weve talked about this dodge for ten years. In this familiar way, liberals get playedand big players camo the clan.
Isikoff did this sh*t right on her program. Which group was Isikoff in?