Daily Howler logo
THIS JUST IN FROM THE BACKWATER! Courrégé’s superlative work made us stop and ponder: // link // print // previous // next //
THURSDAY, DECEMBER 18, 2008

Campbell Brown, playing the fool: Astounding. Last night, it was Campbell Brown making a fool of herself over the deeply troubling way Obama has handled the Blagojevich matter.

At the start of her program, Brown played tape of Tuesday’s Q-and-A between Obama and John McCormick—the troubling exchange in which Obama told McCormick (again) that he’d have to wait until next week to have his questions answered. Then, Brown made an utter fool of herself with an utterly silly commentary, in which she lectured Obama about “the very ideals you promoted during your campaign—directness, honesty, candor, transparency, openness.” Poor Brown! “You were the one who embraced openness,” she piously said. “You could stand to be a little more open to it.”

Brown’s commentary was utterly foolish—but her panel segment on this matter seemed designed to make her look even worse. Roland Martin and Jeffrey Toobin tried—much too politely, in our view—to show her how silly her whole posture was. But Steven Hayes was clowning too, about this super-trumped question.

We won’t even attempt to capture how foolish Brown was all through this discussion. But good God! When it came time to move along from this trumped-up topic, she laughingly responded to Martin, who was openly mocking her focus on this bogus matter:

MARTIN (12/17/08): We in the media— This is the best that we have to latch on. So we're going to ride this until the wheels fall off.

BROWN: No! no! We've got something better. We've got something better! Stay right there! Don't go anywhere, Roland, or the rest of the panel. We do have other things to talk about! A little bit later, we're going to talk about a potential political superstar, Caroline Kennedy!

By now, Brown was clearly trafficking in high irony. To our ear, it was fairly clear that she understood—that she was acknowledging—how foolish this whole bag of bullsh*t is. Shorter Brown: We won’t just waste time on the one-week delay—we’ll waste your time with Caroline too! But so it now goes in the cable “news” world, a world which has never seemed phonier.

Remarkable. You live at a time when institutions are crumbling all around you—but seven-figure cable “news” stars can’t think of real news topics they can discuss! It’s hard to believe, but it’s perfectly true: We’re not sure when we’ve ever seen them play the fool to quite this extent. Last night, we thought it was fairly clear that Brown knew this was all bogus too.

Late Tuesday, Steve Benen captured this unfolding gong-show, as many liberals have done on the web; he described the pimping of this pseudo-issue as “a week of bizarre reporting, and a bizarre effort on the part of many outlets and media personalities to draw a connection that doesn't exist.” Indeed, the clowning has truly been something to see since December 9, when Patrick Fitzgerald announced that Obama hadn’t done anything wrong—and read the transcript of Blagojevich complaining about that very fact. We’ll admit it: We ourselves have been very surprised to see the press corps clown so hard—to see them working so wondrously hard to suggest that Obama has done something wrong. Yesterday, Digby authored her latest must-read post about this remarkable—and objectively evil—nonsense. We’ll only say this: You know you’ve hit the Village rock-bottom when the very correct and prim Ms. Stoddard adds her very fine cant to the mix. Do they make her remove her hat and white gloves before she deigns offer comment?

Many liberals have pushed back skillfully against this truly remarkable nonsense. But readers: Which of your fiery “nominal allies” have somehow managed to hold themselves back? We’ve been asking that question all week. Tomorrow, despite the attendant heartache, we’ll finally give you an answer.

The culture—and cult—of the palace: Here was Matthews, chirping and chittering last night about Dear Caroline:

MATTHEWS (12/17/08): We’ll be back with John Harwood and Michael Duffy for more of the “Politics Fix.” We’re going to talk about Caroline. This has become the story in every newspaper I read at dawn—Caroline! Of course, I read those stories first. You’re watching Hardball, only on MSNBC.

[commercial break]

MATTHEWS: We’re back with John Harwood and Michael Duffy. We’re having the candy moment of the show, which is Caroline Kennedy. I don’t know what it is, but it is the cotton candy of political discussion, Harwood. It is amazing. It’s so easy to talk about. It requires no intellectual knowledge. Do you want Caroline Kennedy to be back in the Senate? That’s all.

A recurrent thought: It’s very hard for regular people to come to terms with the nonsense involved here. People can fathom the broken-souled culture of palace elites—when we talk about life in the real Versailles. But here’s something that’s hard for most people to see: This is the same sort of addled culture, among the same addled elite.

Matthews is paid $5 million per year to offer “cotton candy” like that. He was put in his post by GE’s Jack Welch, one of our wealthiest corporate players.

Special report: School daze!

Part 3—This just in from the backwater: Do Malcolm Gladwell and Amanda Ripley know squat from squadoodle about public schools? Here at THE HOWLER, we have no idea. Within the past week, each scribe penned a major education piece for a major American magazine (for The New Yorker and Time, respectively.) But there’s little sign that either writer has any background in educational issues, and in each case, their presentations sometimes seemed suspiciously murky. In particular, Ripley wrote about Michelle Rhee, the hard-hitting new head of DC’s public schools. Given the school system Rhee now heads, did Ripley understand how shaky this particular feel-good tale sounded?

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.

We don’t know why Ripley’s so sure that an “average 8-year-old...will be scoring well above grade level” by the age of 11, if she gets “effective” teachers—“the kind who rank among the top 15 percent of all teachers.” But working in DC’s public schools, Rhee is dealing with lots of delightful kids who simply aren’t “average 8-year-olds”—if we’re talking about these children’s educational profiles. What sorts of approaches will work best for them? Ripley didn’t seem to realize that this question was raised by her formulation. But duh! For many kids in DC schools, being “a year and a half below grade level” would count as a major academic success! We saw no sign, at any point, that Ripley really knew squat from squadoodle when it came to so basic a fact.

But then, mainstream writing about public schools is often less than expert. In part for that reason, mainstream scribes may be inclined to accept whatever conventional wisdom may be chic and current. Somewhat oddly, Ripley and Gladwell both cited the research of Eric Hanushek, senior fellow at the conservative Hoover Institute. Hanushek’s research may be of great value; we know of no reason to think it isn’t. But Hanushek isn’t a world-famous fellow, and yet, for some unexplained reason, both these scribes were citing his research last week, though neither stated his claims in ways which struck us as fully clear.

That said, a great deal of mainstream ed writing pimps CW—and a great deal of current mainstream CW involves the need to replace or augment the current stock of teachers. This strikes us as a perfectly reasonable approach, but it also tilts the discussion in the direction of union-bashing—the kind of old-school conservative impulse which can be found in current debates about both the public schools and the Big 3. No, the ongoing struggles in low-incomes schools aren’t simply a function of poor teacher quality. But you might have thought otherwise when you read Nicholas Kristof’s recent column, in which he advised Obama:

KRISTOF (11/13/08): There's still a vigorous debate about how to improve education, but recent empirical research is giving us a much better sense of what works. A study by the Hamilton Project, a public policy group at the Brookings Institution, outlines several steps to boost weak schools: end rigid requirements for teacher certification that impede hiring, make tenure more difficult to get so that ineffective teachers can be weeded out after three years on the job and award hefty bonuses to good teachers willing to teach in low-income areas. If we want outstanding, inspiring teachers in difficult classrooms, we're going to have to pay much more—and it would be a bargain.

Kristof offered three ideas, all of which are perfectly valid; but all three ideas involved teacher quality. For the record, this seems to be the study to which he referred; the same study was specifically cited in Gladwell’s piece, once again driving home the point about mysterious uniformity of outlook. The study’s authors make five formal suggestions; in our view, all five suggestions are well worth pursuing. But can teacher quality be the only correctable problem facing struggling, low-income schools? You might think so if you were to judge from recent mainstream journalism, where you constantly hear tales from the likes of Rhee and Wendy Kopp about the miracle cures that can result if the right sorts of people are sent into urban schools.

Tomorrow, we’ll return to one such tale, as told (again) in Ripley’s profile. Today, though, let’s link to an excellent piece of ed writing, by Adam Nossiter, from the front page of the New York Times. The piece appeared on Halloween, and for good reason: It concerned the kinds of ghosts and goblins which often will get overlooked in mainstream educational journalism.

Uh-oh! “Inspiring Story of Success at Charleston School Gives Way to Suspicion and Hurt,” the front-page headline said. Nossiter described a heralded elementary school in Charleston, South Carolina, whose miraclous test score gains now seem to have been a fraud. For ourselves, we’ll skip the name of the (former) principal, who has denied wrong-doing. But here is the heart of the tale:

NOSSITER (10/31/08): [Principal M] has been a hero in the worn neighborhoods behind this city's venerable mansions, a school principal who fed her underprivileged students, clothed them, found presents for them at Christmas and sometimes roused neglectful parents out of bed in the nearby housing projects.

As test scores rocketed at her school, Sanders-Clyde Elementary, the city held her up as a model. The United Way and the Rotary Club honored her, The Charleston Post and Courier called her a ''miracle worker,'' and the state singled out her school to compete for a national award. In Washington, the Department of Education gave the school $25,000 for its achievements.

Somehow, [Principal M] had transformed one of Charleston's worst schools into one of its best, a rare breakthrough in a city where the state has deemed more than half the schools unsatisfactory. It seemed almost too good to be true.

It may have been. The state has recently started a criminal investigation into test scores at Principal M's school, seeking to determine whether a high number of erasure marks on the tests indicates fraud.

Nossiter goes on to describe the process by which the state of South Carolina decided that something was wrong at this school. In short, exam sheets at the high-scoring school sported an unusually high number of erasures—with the erasures all turning wrong answers to right. (That’s not the normal pattern.) If we were to fault Nossiter’s piece, we’d only say this—he failed to put this unfortunate story into a larger historical context. As we told you years ago, this particular type of (outright) cheating has been well-known for decades now (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/31/00)—though it’s rarely discussed in the mainstream press, which so loves tales of those miracle cures. Indeed, after reading Nossiter’s piece, the question we would ask is this: Why did it take the state so long to realize that something seemed wrong at this school? In Washington, why did the award-bestowing Department of Ed behave like a perfect mark?

Nossiter’s front-page work was good—but someone else’s work has been truly superior. That person is Diette Courrégé (all links here), who began reporting this story in the (Charleston) Post and Courier on September 10 of this year. After reading the full account of this mess, one might perhaps fault the Post and Courier for not getting on the story sooner. But since September, Courrégé has produced a stream of superior stories, reporting this matter in a type of detail that is simple never, ever found in the mainstream American press. Try to believe that readers got to peruse a report which started out like this:

COURREGE (9/28/08): In 2007, Sanders-Clyde Elementary students' scores on the state Palmetto Achievement Challenge Test were among the best in Charleston County.

That same year, Sanders-Clyde students also took a lesser-known test and had some of the weakest scores in the county.

The Post and Courier uncovered the gap after requesting test scores from the school district.

There is less than a one percent likelihood that chance alone explains the wide gap, according to a statistical analysis requested by the newspaper.

The discrepancy in Sanders-Clyde's test scores raises new questions about the school's record of achievement. Further analysis revealed testing irregularities at another school, E.B. Ellington Elementary in Ravenel.

Say what? The Post and Courier uncovered this gap after requesting test scores from the school district? The gap didn’t likely occur by chance, according to a statistical analysis requested by the newspaper? It’s truly inspiring to see a newspaper engaging in such careful technical work. And to see Courrégé provide this type of detailed background about this long-standing problem:

COURREGE (11/2/08): Every year, a small group of South Carolina Department of Education employees gathers behind closed doors to scour thousands of students' standardized test results and search for cheaters.

In an attempt to identify educators who have illegally tried to improve their class or school scores, the group hunts for classes, schools and districts with unusually high numbers of test answers that have been erased and corrected.

[...]

State educators began looking for clues in eraser marks about two decades ago.

Joe Saunders spurred the state's exploration into this aspect of testing. He's a number-crunching expert for the state who wrote a computer program that analyzes eraser marks.

The state's testing company provides individual students' answers to every test question, including whether tests contained answer switches. A computer can tell when an answer has been erased.

Saunders' program flags districts, schools and classes that have high numbers of answer changes, and it shows whether correct or incorrect answers ultimately were chosen.

The Post and Courier obtained the state's analysis that showed more than 7,500 students' tests statewide last year had a higher-than-average number of wrong answers that were erased and corrected.

In today’s post, we can’t begin to do justice to the detailed work Courrégé has done on this matter. Suffice to say that this is the kind of work you’d sensibly expect a journalist to do—and that it’s the kind of work you simply never see in your major newspapers.

Nossiter’s piece was a step in the right direction; Courrégé’s serial effort has been truly superb. That said, let’s tie this back to a question that came to our heads when we reviewed that sensible, intelligent Hamilton Project study—the one which Kristof cited.

Early on, Courrégé began giving her readers some background on the general shape of this problem. On September 14, she began one of her many informative reports with some awkward info:

COURREGE (9/14/08): So much rides on public school students' test scores.

They can make or break a principal's career. Awards, money and promotions often accompany high scores. Low scores can mean state takeover or intense public scrutiny. They can lessen neighborhoods' home values and desirability.

The increasing pressure on educators to post strong results on high-stakes tests has created ripe conditions for cheating.

Cases of educator-led cheating are cropping up across the country, from Virginia to Texas to Ohio. An analysis of seven years of test results for third- though seventh-grade Chicago public school students found evidence of teacher cheating in more than 200 classrooms per year, which was roughly 5 percent of the total, according to the book "Freakonomics" by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. Those in the lowest-scoring classrooms were most likely to cheat.

A number of scenarios, such as unusually large one-year gains or high numbers of eraser marks, can trigger suspicions.

We’ll edit Courrégé on one point. In fact, “cases of educator-led cheating” have beencropping up across the country” for decades, ever since scores derived from teacher-administered tests began to be used as accountability measures. And uh-oh! We have no idea if those data from Freakonomics are representative of national conduct. But we thought about this Charleston school when we read that intelligent Hamilton Project study, the one Kristof recommended. You see, that study turns on the use of test scores from the Los Angeles schools—pre-existing data derived from teacher-administered tests. If five percent of those data are bogus, the study’s utility may well be affected. But we rarely see any sign that major researchers—or educational writers—ever consider such matters. As a result, you recently had the Washington Post praising an elementary school at the top of page one—a school with the second-lowest reading score in the whole state of Virginia! And when we discovered that test scores for every school in Virginia had been bogus for several years—when the head of the state school board said we were right—your extremely high-minded Washington Post didn’t even bother reporting this small, minor, non-newsy fact.

Kristof cited an intelligent study, one whose suggestions are well worth considering. But what about Courrégé’s superlative work, down in a little backwater paper? Do researchers allow for possible problems like the ones she’s been discussing? We don’t know the answer to that. But we’ve often wondered when we’ve read certain studies, like some of the studies which are now CW wherever press outlooks are sold.

Tomorrow: Back to Rhee’s uplifting tale.