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RIPLEY BELIEVES! Does Time magazine know squat from squadoodle concerning low-income schools? // link // print // previous // next //
TUESDAY, DECEMBER 16, 2008

Rick Sanchez parses hearty: Good God. Yesterday afternoon, the Obama office had just released its statement about the Blagojevich matter. On CNN, Rick Sanchez threw to Brianna Keilar, the channel’s most perfect blonde yet. She explained what the statement said:

KEILAR (12/15/08): We just got this statement from a spokesman for the transition saying that this review is ready for release and that it reaffirmed public statements of Obama that he had no contact with the governor or his staff and that there was no inappropriate contact between the two staffs.

But it also says that the U.S. attorney's office has requested that the public release of this transition review, as they put it here, be put off until the week of December 22, so next week, so that it doesn't get in the way of the investigation of Governor Rod Blagojevich...

But, you know, Rick, this Blagojevich scandal has been something that has—it's created quite a distraction for president-elect Obama and it's going to continue to, of course, as these questions remain, even though you hear the—

When Sanchez heard talk of this “distraction,” he could restrain himself no more. Sanchez seems like a nice enough guy; in particular, we’ve never sensed that he has an offensive political agenda. But he’s part of your nation’s “D-plus elite.” Sit back and watch as he parses the use of one key word. Watch him parse till he drops:

SANCHEZ (continuing directly): I got a question right now. The use of the word “inappropriate” discussions: The president-elect's staff was not involved in “inappropriate” discussions—which would lead me to believe or ask, as a journalist: Does that imply that they did have discussions, but these discussions are, according to you, President-elect Obama, not “inappropriate?”

You know, it's just—it's just an interesting part. It almost seems with this story, Brianna—and these happen all the time—that every time you cross one hurdle, there's still another one on the other side, right?

We can’t show you the tape, but Sanchez plainly thought he had spotted a very key point. Sanchez was parsing till he dropped—and showing us the pitiful state of this pitiful, D-plus elite.

Poor Sanchez! He seemed to think he’d made quite a find when he spotted that key word, “inappropriate.” He quickly imagined himself grilling Obama: “Does that imply that they did have discussions, but these discussions are, according to you, President-elect Obama, not ‘inappropriate?’” Well yes, of course that’s what that implies—and only a D-plus elite wouldn’t know that! But Sanchez was almost instantly marveling at “an interesting part” of this matter: “It almost seems with this story, Brianna—and these happen all the time—that every time you cross one hurdle, there's still another one on the other side.”

Indeed, that claim is right as rain, for reasons Digby explains in this post. When the press corps lets itself parse in such silly ways—as Sanchez parses hearty here; as Gwen Ifill parsed hearty on Sunday—then there will always be “another hurdle” as some pointless story unfolds. Our D-plus elite will parse till they drop, endlessly dreaming up new sets of “questions.” And there will be nothing a pol can do to make their nonsense stop.

Again, we think of Gore’s 3/97 press conference about those fund-raising phone calls. He got all the facts out right away, just as journalists say pols must do—but in the process, he used a phrase the D-plus elite didn’t care for. (“No controlling legal authority.” He said this meant “no case law.”) They asked him the same questions time and again, until he had used the phrase seven times (in 26 minutes). And then, although they had all the facts, they complained for years about his odd language, which he’d used too many times.

The D-plus elite always knows to say this: If they’d just get out all the facts, the story would go away. But this scripted claim is laughably bogus, as Digby helps describe. Simply put, these stories end when our D-plus elite finds something else they’d rather parse. Yesterday, Sanchez parsed till he dropped about the word “inappropriate.” He seemed to think he’d discovered something in the use of that one damning word.

By the way: To Keilar’s credit, she tried to inject a bit of sanity into this high-octane parsing. She noted that “a lot of people have pointed out it wouldn't be unusual or even inappropriate for president-elect Obama's staff to be in touch with Governor Blagojevich's staff about Obama's replacement.” But the young scribe seemed to know what she had to say first! This was Keilar’s full response, after her anchor parsed hearty:

KEILAR (continuing directly): Well, but what we have heard from so many people—and that's not to say this doesn't create a question mark or that a question mark remains, because it does, because, as you said, they're saying no “inappropriate” communications.

But, at the same time, a lot of people have pointed out it wouldn't be unusual or even inappropriate for president-elect Obama's staff to be in touch with Governor Blagojevich's staff about Obama's replacement in the Senate, that this would be quite usual, that he would, you know, have an interest, obviously, and have some input, that his staff would have some input, Rick.

“That's not to say this doesn't create a question mark...because it does,” Keilar agreed. (She then proceeded to echo her anchor’s D-plus parsing of that key word.) She seemed to know this was pure/perfect crap. But she knew she was part of a D-plus Village elite—a well-scripted cohort, a clan.

Still coming: Which of your fiery “nominal allies” still haven’t said boo about this?

Special report: School daze!

Part 2—Ripley believes: Does Malcolm Gladwell know whereof he speaks? Frankly, we have no idea. In last week’s New Yorker, the famous scribe expounded, at length, about a serious educational issue (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/15/08). But does the scribe know squat from squadoodle when it comes to public schools? We thought his writing was suspiciously murky right from the start—and, eventually, he offered the following. He was citing Eric Hanushek, a senior fellow at the (conservative) Hoover Institute:

GLADWELL (12/15/08): Hanushek recently did a back-of-the-envelope calculation about what even a rudimentary focus on teacher quality could mean for the United States. If you rank the countries of the world in terms of the academic performance of their schoolchildren, the U.S. is just below average, half a standard deviation below a clump of relatively high-performing countries like Canada and Belgium. According to Hanushek, the U.S. could close that gap simply by replacing the bottom six per cent to ten per cent of public-school teachers with teachers of average quality.

Could the U.S. achieve a significant gain just by hiring some “average” teachers? That claim seems problematic to us in several ways. And we had absolutely no sense that Gladwell is qualified to assess it.

But so it often goes—so it long has gone—when big news orgs report on the schools. The thinking seems to go like this: Anyone who ever was in the fourth grade is qualified to expound at length about current fourth grade teaching. In fairness, a journalist who lacks a background in ed may still do excellent work in the area. But such scribes often seem to believe whatever blarney they may have been handed—by whichever educational clique may seem most cool to the press at that time. And alas! We thought of this problem when we explored Amanda Ripley’s recent cover story in Time—her intriguing profile of DC public schools chief Michelle Rhee.

For better or worse, Ripley is not an education writer. In this, the bio from her own blog, she says that she “currently covers risk and homeland security for TIME Magazine from Washington, DC.” Ripley “has also been integrally involved in TIME’s Person of the Year cover stories,” this bio says. Beyond that, Ripley’s blog offers this account of her background as a journalist:

RIPLEY BLOG: Before joining TIME, Amanda covered the D.C. court system for Washington City Paper and reported on Capitol Hill for Congressional Quarterly. She has contributed to the New York Times Magazine, the Washington Monthly and Time Out. Amanda graduated with a BA in Government from Cornell University. She has received awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, the Newswomen’s Club of New York and the Washington Monthly, among others, and she is a two-time Livingston Award finalist.

To state the obvious, there’s nothing “wrong” with any of that—quite the opposite. But Ripley doesn’t breathe a word about any background in educational issues. And as with Gladwell, so with Ripley: When we read her profile of Rhee, we thought that lack of background began to show through.

How limited in Ripley’s background in ed? Before we review something from her Time piece itself, consider this short post from her blog about the assignment to profile Rhee. As she linked to her cover story, Ripley described her own lack of background—and she made puzzling claims about public schools, seeming to think they were obvious:

RIPLEY BLOG (11/26/08): For me, doing this Time story on DC schools chief Michelle Rhee was a revelation. I knew our schools were troubled, but I hadn’t realized the compounded effects of all that mediocrity. I hadn’t known that a child who has three bad teachers for three years in a row really never recovers. I had not realized that the difference in test scores between white and minority kids goes away—totally vanishes—if they both have effective teachers for a few years.

Clearly, Ripley came to this topic as a bit of a novice; the things she encountered while working with Rhee came to her as “a revelation.”

There’s nothing “wrong” with that lack of background—but Ripley is soon tossing off claims, right in this paragraph, which strike us as quite remarkable. Her statement about the effects of “three bad teachers in a row” strikes us as a bromide from a bubble-gum wrapper—but that final, highlighted claim is the one we find most remarkable. “I had not realized that the difference in test scores between white and minority kids goes away—totally vanishes—if they both have effective teachers for a few years,” Ripley writes—and she seems to regard this as a well-known fact, an established fact that only she had somehow weirdly missed. And yet, we have no idea why Ripley believes that claim, or what exactly she thinks the claim means. Does it mean that “minority kids” from low-income, low-literacy backgrounds will typically be working on traditional grade level if they just “have effective teachers for a few years?” That such kids will typically overcome the substantial deficits they bring with them, through no fault of their own, on the first day of first grade? That’s the kind of feel-good idea which has driven the know-nothing writing of mainstream journalists for the past forty years. But what is the evidence for this idea? If Ripley failed to “realize” this was true in the past; why has she come to believe it’s true now? Lacking any background in education, Ripley seems to find this claim so obvious that she makes no attempt to explain or source it. And then, in her actual profile of Rhee, she went on to make the following claim. Somewhat oddly, she, like Gladwell, is citing Hanushek’s research. (Like Gladwell, she places Hanushek at Stanford, not at the famously conservative Hoover Institute):

RIPLEY (12/8/08): The data back up Rhee's obsession with teaching. If two average 8-year-olds are assigned to different teachers, one who is strong and one who is weak, the children's lives can diverge in just a few years, according to research pioneered by Eric Hanushek at Stanford. The child with the effective teacher, the kind who ranks among the top 15 percent of all teachers, will be scoring well above grade level on standardized tests by the time she is 11. The other child will be a year and a half below grade level—and by then it will take a teacher who works with the child after school and on weekends to undo the compounded damage. In other words, the child will probably never catch up.

The ability to improve test scores is clearly not the only sign of a good teacher. But it is a relatively objective measure in an industry with precious few. And in schools where kids are struggling to read and subtract, it is a prerequisite for getting anything else done.

The key word in that highlighted passage is “average,” though this may not have occurred to Ripley, given her lack of background. But for the record: “In schools where kids are struggling to read and subtract,” superintendents like Rhee are dealing with many kids who can’t sensibly be described as “average,” if it’s their educational profile we are discussing. Here’s the way the Center for American Progress described their plight, in a formulation we’ve cited many times in the past:

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.

Those kids aren’t “average” on the day they start school—and they surely aren’t “average” when they hit the fourth grade. In an important New York Times magazine piece, Paul Tough explained something else (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/1/06)—when it comes to their educational profiles, these deserving kids are no longer “average” by the time they’re 3 years old:

TOUGH (11/26/06): Researchers began peering deep into American homes, studying up close the interactions between parents and children. The first scholars to emerge with a specific culprit in hand were Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley, child psychologists at the University of Kansas, who in 1995 published the results of an intensive research project on language acquisition...They found, first, that vocabulary growth differed sharply by class and that the gap between the classes opened early. By age 3, children whose parents were professionals had vocabularies of about 1,100 words, and children whose parents were on welfare had vocabularies of about 525 words. The children's I.Q.'s correlated closely to their vocabularies. The average I.Q. among the professional children was 117, and the welfare children had an average I.Q. of 79.

Findings like that help explain why educational leaders may want to expand preschool education—or may want to conduct programs teaching low-income parents how to raise their kids for academic success. But: Under current circumstances, is Ripley’s claim true for these kids too—not just for kids who are “average?” If these kids get an “effective teacher, the kind who ranks among the top 15 percent of all teachers,” will they too “be scoring well above grade level on standardized tests by the time [they are] 11?” We don’t have the slightest idea; we’re quite sure that Ripley doesn’t know either. And yet, there we see her confident statement, as she tells the world what all scribes know to say: That Rhee, their new god, is correct.

This is not a criticism of Rhee; Rhee didn’t write (or edit) this report. It isn’t a criticism of Hanushek, whose research is surely well worth consulting. But: Did Amanda Ripley know whereof she spoke? Or did she simply believe some chic things she was told? If you care about low-income schools, you’ll care about questions like that.

Tomorrow—Part 3: Oddly, all from the same hymnal.