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Daily Howler: Vacuous pundits are still parsing hard. This week, skilled progressives pushed back
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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 Gotham’s upper-end press corps discusses affairs in the schools. This editorial, in today’s 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 sense—and 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:

NEW YORK TIMES EDITORIAL (12/12/08): The most striking innovation [in Louisiana] is an evaluation system that judges teacher-preparation programs based on how much their graduates improve student performances in important areas, including reading, math and science.

Once the evaluation system is in place throughout the state, officials would be able to determine which programs are turning out first-class teachers and which ones still need work. Just as important, local school districts would know which institution’s graduates to avoid and which ones to hire for which subjects.

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 institution’s graduates to avoid and which ones to hire for which subjects.” This sounds like a great idea—inside 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 doesn’t 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 schools—the ones they’ve rarely set foot in. As they continue, the editors show their lack of sophistication—perhaps, their lack of concern:

NEW YORK TIMES EDITORIAL (continuing directly): This year’s report, released earlier this month, gives high marks to the teacher-preparation program at the University of Louisiana at Monroe. The report is especially flattering to The New Teacher Project. The private certification program, which works in other states as well, puts highly qualified college graduates through 12 to 18 months of additional training before placing them in schools.

According to the Louisiana report, new teachers from The New Teacher Project were more effective at teaching math, reading and language arts than others with two or more years of experience. A significant proportion of the project’s Louisiana teachers were sent by Teach for America, an increasingly popular nonprofit group that recruits high-achieving, young college graduates expressly for placement in schools that are difficult to staff.

As usual, we find ourselves inside the latest ad for the Teach for America program. TFA is affiliated with The New Teacher Project—and 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 don’t say. And yes, that sort of thing does matter. This is clear as the editors proceed:

NEW YORK TIMES EDITORIAL (continuing directly): The Louisiana findings echo a study earlier this year showing that Teach for America participants who worked in North Carolina between 2000 and 2006 had a more positive impact on student performance than traditional teachers. The difference was evident in several areas of science and was strongest in math. The findings suggest that high-quality programs like Teach for America and The New Teacher Project have a big role to play in the effort to improve teacher preparation nationally.

The editorial continues as TFA ads often do—with 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” was—how 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 study’s 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 peers—on 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 math—showing 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 nobody’s 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 doesn’t make sense to say that TFA teachers “had a more positive impact on student performance”—unless you’re actually willing to say how big that “positive impact” was. It doesn’t make sense to quote the favorable studies—and to forget the others. And it doesn’t make sense to grant TFA a “big role” in the future of public ed—unless you’ve carefully assessed the program’s apparent successes and failures. But then, it didn’t make sense to pipe-dream about that new program in Louisiana—to assume that we’ll 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, Gotham’s 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 Obama’s choice for Secretary of Ed, a bunch of odd educational writing has popped up in the press. We’ll plan to look at some of these pieces next week. We’ll 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 TFA’s more ridiculous claims. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/16/08, for our full five-part series.

Parse till you drop: We’ll admit it—we were surprised by Gene Robinson’s column in this morning’s 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:

ROBINSON (12/12/08): In handling questions about the arrest of Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich—for allegedly trying to sell President-elect Barack Obama's former Senate seat to the highest bidder—Obama has gone strictly by the book. His statements have been cautious and precise, careful not to get ahead of the facts or make declarations that might later have to be retracted.

For most politicians, that would be good enough. For Obama, who inspired the nation with a promise of "change we can believe in," it's not.

The scandal involves Obama in only the most tangential way, as far as anyone knows, and actually seems to cast him in a favorable light. But the longer he leaves obvious questions unanswered, the longer the president-elect will have to talk about the seamier side of Illinois politics rather than initiatives such as saving the U.S. auto industry or revamping health care.

Truly, we’d 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, there’s what happened yesterday: Obama said, once again, that he himself had no discussions about this matter with Blagojevich—and he said he’d release the record of staff discussions “over the next few days.” And yet, this just isn’t good enough, Robinson weirdly decrees in this piece. It would be good enough for other pols. But it’s not good enough for Obama.

Good enough for others—but not for Big Dems! We’ve 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:

ROBINSON: Obama has denied speaking to Blagojevich about the Senate seat. But Obama's initial statement seemed crafted to avoid the question of whether his aides had been in touch with the governor's office. He said at a news conference yesterday that he was certain his people "had no involvement with any dealmaking," and he added that his staff was still "gathering facts" about possible contacts.

But all this seems awfully coy. It's obvious that the president-elect would have an interest in who was appointed to the Senate from his home state—for good reason. For that matter, it would be unusual if the president-elect didn't have a preferred candidate. The normal thing would be for Obama's staff to talk to Blagojevich's staff—and, unless prosecutors have asked him not to, I don't understand why Obama hasn't stated this simple fact.

We won’t waste our time explaining how silly that peck-of-parsing is. In essence, Robinson “doesn’t understand why” Obama hasn’t yet voiced every thought which has come into Robinson’s head. One answer to that question is obvious: Robinson’s 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 conduct—conduct which drove the politics of the disastrous Clinton/Bush era. But even now, the parsing pundits won’t stop—even the pundits who pimped Obama for two solid years.

Even today, people like Robinson parse till they drop. It’s simply too much to wait “a few days” to get a full report of what happened (at which time scribes might decide that Obama’s report is insufficient). They want their answers right flat now—the answers to questions that litter their heads. They parse, and ponder, and puzzle again—as they have parsed in the past.

By Robinson’s admission: It would be good enough for most other pols. But as always, it ain’t 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 O’Donnell politely trying (a bit too politely) to show him how foolish he was. Bill O’Reilly was inexcusable in his program’s opening segment, inventing a dream from 2002. Even on The NewsHour, Elizabeth Brackett couldn’t stop the parsing when she answered Ray Suarez’s first question. In this passage, she discussed Obama’s press confab:

BRACKETT (12/11/08): He was even more adamant that he had not had any conversations at all with the governor. He also said he was going to do an investigation into whether or not any of his staff people had had conversations. He said we would have those results in several days. You have to sort of wonder why it’s going to take three or four days for him to ask his staff whether or not they’ve had conversations. But he said he would.

Actually, no. Given the press corps’ incessant scandal-culture, you really don’t “have to wonder” why Obama won’t release the information until some point “over the next few days” (the phrase he actually used). Beyond that, you don’t 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. Bracken’s 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 Woodward’s 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 slowly—and Bracken transforms “the next few days” into the troubling “three or four.” In this way, they parse till they drop—and 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 attacked—and in the process, sent Bush to the White House. (Al Gore said he inspired Love Story!) You’d 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 night’s entertainment:

SHUSTER (12/11/08): Tonight, damage control! President-elect Barack Obama tries to distance himself from an arguably delusional and allegedly criminal governor of Illinois, who still refuses to leave office. But there are still some things Mr. Obama can’t explain...

Instantly, Shuster offered lurid speculations about Valerie Jarrett’s 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-back—skilled, intelligent push-back—all around the liberal web! Up above, we linked you to Boehlert and Jamison at County Seat; they’ve done extremely skilled work on this parsing all week long. We suggest you click that link and thank God for the skill they’ve 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 hard—but the progressive world is massively smarter. The liberal world has gained a great deal of skill—and it’s 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 can’t 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 ahead—read Dionne’s piece! Would you even know there’s been a problem with all the parsing this week?

Dionne is very smart, and decent. But he’s 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.

Let’s start by listing at least three things Rachel Maddow does exceptionally well. She books superlative guests for her program—the best selection of guests on cable. When she stops her incessant joking (perhaps it’s 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 Maddow’s a whole different critter.

That said, here’s 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 didn’t 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 work—once 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 parsers—by 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 wouldn’t push back?

Please don’t yell at us—we’re just asking! But for our money, we didn’t see it. KeithO makes $7 million a year—and 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 Palin’s wardrobe.) But then, many people will do—and avoid—many things to come by such pay-checks.

The liberal world has developed great skill when it comes to debunking the culture of parsing. Isn’t 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? Isn’t it time we took these skilled players and let them tell the truth on the air?

Let’s play dodgeball: Here’s how Maddow presented the problem last night. We’d call this a Standard Mainstream Press Dodge, one we’ve discussed for a decade:

MADDOW (12/11/08): What if you threw a press conference about healthcare and everybody showed up for a press conference about the corrupt governor of your home state? Then you’d be Barack Obama, whose honeymoony, grab-the- reins hero time has been interrupted by an unsightly pile of Blagojevich.

Tom Daschle is the HHS secretary! That’s nice: What did you know about Blagojevich? Health care must be fixed! Yes, yes, yes: Should Blagojevich resign? Why don’t you repeat your call for him to resign?

A few Republicans like Mike Duncan, head of the Republican Party and Congressman Eric Cantor of Virginia and some conservative columnists like John Fund in today’s Wall Street Journal are hell bent for leather that the Blagojevich scandal is somehow magically an Obama scandal in disguise. So far, there’s really, truly, honestly no evidence of that at all. And this kind of thing is all they are going to get from Obama himself.

OBAMA (videotape): I was as appalled and disappointed as anybody by the revelations earlier this week. I have never spoken to the governor on this subject. I’m confident that no representatives of mine would have any part of any deals related to this seat.

MADDOW: Yes, but you’re from Chicago! Chicago’s corrupt—and there’s no way you didn’t know, right? And what about Rahm?

Maddow went on to parody the silliest parsing—after explaining that it has been done by “a few Republicans” and “some conservative columnists.” We’ve talked about this dodge for ten years. In this familiar way, liberals get played—and big players camo the clan.

Isikoff did this sh*t right on her program. Which group was Isikoff in?