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ALGEBRA FOR ALL! What happens when boards of ed “raise their standards?” The Washington Post helps us see: // link // print // previous // next //
WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 13, 2006

LEAD-PAINT LOSERS: Last night, the boys topped even themselves. Each evening, after an hour of Tucker, Tucker Carlson drags out Willie Geist Jr. for tedious remarks on the day’s “other news.” Geist looks to be maybe seven years old, and his insights tend to reinforce the impression; for what it’s worth, he comes by his “sense of humor” honestly, being a direct descendant of Bill Geist, CBS’s Andy Rooney knock-off. (Carlson’s a bit of a legacy, too; his dad was a long-time GOP honcho.) Each evening, the boys finish out the evening together, tending toward misogyny and racial derision, and offering a picture of a former world—a world in which such empty-suit lads inherited the nation’s high postings. When you watch this pair hold court, you see what the nation’s top prep schools were like—before they decided it might make sense to admit at least some boys on merit.

But last night, the lads topped even themselves. The boys were discussing the Oscar chances of the Al Gore film, An Inconvenient Truth. Soon, the young fellows were clapping themselves on the back and praising themselves for their self-imposed ignorance. Yes, our young men really said it:
CARLSON (12/12/06): Have you seen the Gore movie?

GEIST: No, I have not seen it.

CARLSON: I suspect it’s a shade, what’s the word? “Pedantic.”

GEIST: Yes, I didn’t see it because I had paint to watch dry that weekend, so I couldn’t get to it. But Hollywood would like nothing more than to help propel him to the White House. So, don’t be surprised if gets it.

CARLSON: Good point!
“Good point,” Carlson oddly said. But then, boys like this, all through our history, have bucked themselves up in this manner.

Yes, these lads have always been with us. Carlson didn’t see the movie, but he’s fairly sure that he knows what it’s like. And Geist turned loose his world-class wit, offering a tired old “dry paint” rejoinder and pretending that the film came and went in a flash. (The third-biggest documentary in history, it ran in New York for more than three months.). By the way: As others have noted, Carlson has made remarkably uninformed comments about climate change on his nightly program. (For one sad example, just click here.) No, our bright young lad hasn’t seen the Gore film. And if you’ve watched Tucker, it shows.

But there they were, two fresh-faced lads, praising themselves for their self-imposed ignorance. Regarding Geist Junior, by the way, we do occasionally get the idea that he’s watched a lot of paint dry in his time. Indeed, local jesters were out in force after his latest empty-boy musings. “Some of that paint may have had some lead in it,” one of our analysts brightly quipped.

CHRIS BUSTS A MOVE: Then there’s Chris Matthews, thankfully back from a hospital stay—but, apparently, a bit too well-rested. You know how male cable pundits just luv to talk about Britney Spears’ desperate need for attention? On his first night back, Chris interviewed John Edwards and Elizabeth Edwards—and at one point, we got the feeling that the talker might have suffered from lack-of-attention deficit over the past few weeks himself. Elizabeth Edwards said that her husband—like John Kerry—isn’t always that great telling jokes. Try to believe that Chris said it:

ELIZABETH EDWARDS (12/12/06): There are not that many politicians who are actually very good at jokes. John spoke one time and I said I wouldn’t even go because it was—he was supposed to be funny and I didn’t think he could carry it off.

CROWD: (LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: I love it. You’re great. Behind every great man, there`s a woman trying to kill him.

CROWD: (LAUGHTER)

ELIZABETH EDWARDS: He has great characteristics—

MATTHEWS: What is it? Does she do this? Does she bust your balls like this when you come home? When you get out of line, does she do that?

CROWD: (MIXED RESPONSE)

ELIZABETH. EDWARDS: My children are watching this!

CROWD: (LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: What’s this with the equal marriages? Why do people marry their equals? It used to be different! What happened to the Stepford wives, the good old days? What happened?

CROWD: (BOOING)

MATTHEWS: Oh, how PC! How—why don’t you hiss? Oh, thank you. Finally, the freakin’ hiss. I needed it. It was the hiss. I needed that.

Sadly, he wanted to know if she “busts his balls.” I needed that, he then said of the crowd’s “freakin’ hiss,” sounding a bit like a flailing comic himself. Not to bust his b*lls, of course. But at THE HOWLER, we suspected he meant it.

Soon, though, the talker righted himself. He moved on to all-time favorite remarks—about Hillary Clinton’s spouse “messing around.”

ALGEBRA FOR ALL: What happens when high-minded state boards of ed decide to high-mindedly “raise their standards?” It always sounds like a wonderful thing, and high-minded pundits tend to applaud. But, in yesterday’s Washington Post, Nelson Hernandez took a look at the way such actions sometimes work out. The state of Maryland now requires high schools graduates to pass an algebra test. Hernandez visited a high school in low-income, majority-minority Prince Georges County—a high school which is struggling to deal with this new state-wide plan.

Hernandez visited Wise High School in Upper Marlboro, where 11 sophomores were taking a 90-minute, twice-a-week after-school lesson. These students had already failed the Maryland algebra test—the test they must pass to get a diploma. Early on, Hernandez described a bit of the math being taught:

HERNANDEZ (12/12/06): The sophomores are tired and disgruntled. They're grinding through Question 40, which is meant to test their knowledge of the difference between a mean and a median. To calculate the mean, add the salary numbers together and divide by the number of people, [teacher Michelle] Guinn explains patiently. As she writes the long equation down on a white board, some students punch it into their calculators. Others zone out. And Sydne Kersey starts to get frustrated.

"There's no easier way to do this?" Sydne, 15, asks.

"This is it, baby," Guinn says. "This is algebra."
It seems fairly clear that these students are struggling with their remedial algebra. But these kids are not a few hopeless “dead-enders;” according to Hernandez, 46.1 percent of this county’s students failed the state algebra test last year. Of all the kids who failed the test, Hernandez is describing some of the kids who are making the extra remedial effort. According to Hernandez, the 11 kids who were taking this class had all come close to passing.

We call attention to this for a reason. It always sounds good when high-minded pundits suggest that school systems (or states) should simply “raise standards.” It’s an easy thing for scribes to suggest; they’ll rarely set foot in a low-income school, and they rarely have any idea how hard it is to achieve such a goal. (Indeed, David Broder somehow got conned into thinking that low-income kids fail high school because they don’t get enough “college-level work.” See THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/27/06.) Last February and March, we discussed this same problem, and many readers couldn’t grasp why algebra would be hard for a high school student (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/2/06). But many of these kids—these kids, the kids who are actually trying—have been confused, in all their subjects, since the day they entered first grade. We’ll take a guess: They’ve never really been able to read their textbooks, or to maintain the pace of instructional programs (in math, for example). It isn’t that they’ve been challenged too little. In endless cases, from Grade 1 on, these kids have been “challenged” too much.

After eight or nine years of ongoing confusion, decent kids can be very weak students. We’ll guess that the student whom Hernandez describes is a lovely young person—and that she’s been “frustrated” for a long time. It’s amazingly easy to tell these kids’ teachers that they should simply “raise their standards.” But that prescription tends to make little sense. Once again, some good reporting helps us see the shape of the problem—the shape of the actual problem, not the problem we tend to imagine.

TOMORROW OR FRIDAY: Let’s talk Tough—our reactions.

HISTORY LESSON: Over and over, jurisdictions have implemented graduation/promotion plans of this type—then have backed off when too many kids fail. Will the state of Maryland back away too? We don’t have the slightest idea. Or hey—will these kids end up passing their test? We can’t tell you that either.

For the record, the state has already built in escape hatches. “There are other ways around the problem,” Hernandez writes, discussing the four tests high school students must pass (algebra is only one of these tests.) “If students don't fail any of the four tests too badly and get a total score above a certain level, they can graduate.”