Daily Howler logo
TOOL TIME/MINIONS ON UNIONS! When Chris met Michelle, he quickly attacked those infernal teachers unions: // link // print // previous // next //
TUESDAY, DECEMBER 21, 2010

Wrong link: Yesterday, we didn’t post the best link to last week’s interview between Chris Matthews and Michelle Rhee.

To watch that full segment, just click here. Our report continues below.

How do they ever get by: On Sunday, December 12, the Washington Post published a long report by Karen Hube of the Fiscal Times. (It was the massive, featured report on page one of the “Business” section.) Perhaps out of embarrassment, the report doesn’t grace the Nexis archives, although you can read the whole darn thing at the Post’s web site (click here).

Hube’s report was full of information—and it seemed to reveal the curious outlook of an upper-class press corps.

Hube’s question: How do families of four get by on $250,000 per year? Here’s the way she started out, beneath a big honking headline:

HUBE (12/12/10): WHERE DOES $250,000 A YEAR GO?

In the heated battle over extending the expiring Bush-era tax cuts, a single number has emerged from the crossfire: $250,000. It's the annual income that President Obama and others have repeatedly used to define what it means to be "rich" in America today. And even though a tentative deal has been reached on the cuts, $250,000 is etched in the minds of policymakers and pundits as the number that separates the middle class from the wealthy.

By any measure, a $250,000 household income is substantial. It is six times the national average household income, and just 2.9 percent of couples earn that much or more. "For the average person in this country a $250,000 household income is an unattainably high annual sum—they'll never see it," says Roberton Williams, an analyst at the Tax Policy Center, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington.

Just how flush is a family of four with a $250,000 income?

How flush is a family of four with a $250,000 income? Hube’s apparent answer: Not very flush!

Hube penned a long, informative report about the life-styles of the not-so-rich and famous. Her piece was quite informative—but its point of view did seem odd. By the time Hube finished her weeping and moaning, we found ourselves asking a simple question: How do people who don’t make $250,000 ever get by in this world?

On Saturday, the analysts cheered when the Post published three letters responding to this report. The first letter discussed a significant technical matter, then moved to a larger point:

LETTER TO THE WASHINGTON POST (12/18/10): The Dec. 12 analysis by Karen Hube of the Fiscal Times was an excellent example of how journalism is failing in its duty to inform and bring clarity to our public debates. The article attempted to shed light on the practical realities of trying to live at a salary level that has been used to delineate the wealthy from the middle class.

One problem is that the supposed $250,000 income of these hypothetical families refers to taxable income, not gross salary; the difference between these can be significant. For example, the $30,197 federal tax listed for the Alexandria family corresponds to a taxable income of about $149,000—well below the $250,000 threshold. Since these families have substantial deductions for mortgage interest, state and local taxes, and retirement contributions, they would need a salary of at least $340,000 to have a taxable income of $250,000.

While a $250,000 salary puts you in the top 2.9 percent of this country, extending the comparison to the world would put you in the top 0.001 percent.

No, these families are not the Trumps. But, as the article stated, they are comfortable and secure—putting almost as much in savings as the median household income in the United States. That seems pretty wealthy to me.

In our view, liberals should never get drawn into semantic disputes about who is (and isn’t) “wealthy.” That said, the writer made a spot-on observation about these families’ annual savings.

The third letter was more sardonic:

LETTER TO THE WASHINGTON POST: Would Karen Hube like to do an analysis of how my family of four survives on one-fifth of $250,000? That is a story more people might like to hear this holiday season.

J— M—, Alexandria

Indeed. At times, Hube seemed to marvel at the thought that families survive on 250 large.

She said that’s “six times the national average.” But did she (and her eds) understand?

Special report: Mr. Potter’s minions!

PART 2—TOOL TIME/MINIONS ON UNIONS (permalink): It’s been Hard Pundit Law since the 1960s. When they deign to discuss the topic at all, society’s swells seek simple solutions for the failures of low-income schools. The darlings quickly cast about, looking for people to blame so they can drop the supremely tiring discussion.

Why can’t those ratty children do better? Our swells are too lazy, too feckless, too dumb, too uncaring to find out. And so, after bungling a few basic facts, they quickly start dishing out blame.

Through the years, the designated villains have sometimes changed. The dumbness and bad faith have not.

On last Wednesday’s Hardball, Chris Matthews staged a good, cleansing rant on the subject of low-income schools—after bungling a set of facts about international test scores (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/20/10). As he did, he quickly turned on some very bad people—the very bad people who currently teach in our public schools.

Chris doesn’t know squat about public schools, nor has he ever wasted his time studying such a topic. But he does know that, under current scripts, the fault must lie with the teachers! First, he bungled those basic facts about “this creeping disaster of our kids falling further and further behind in the world in math, in language, in everything.” (In fact, “our kids” have been gaining ground on the tests in question.)

It’s a “crying shame,” he angrily said. It’s a “creeping disaster.”

Chris misstated some basic facts about American students’ “dismal ranking” on a major international test. He said he found their performance “disgusting”—and then, with lightning speed, he angrily turned on American teachers. He poses the following know-nothing questions to his guest, Michelle Rhee, who was recently canned as head of the DC public schools. To watch the full segment, click this:

MATTHEWS (12/16/10): What goes on in a public school that allows that to happen? What’s it like? Is the teacher asleep? Are they lugubrious? Are they boring? Are they letting kids get away with bad discipline?

Describe the scene in a D.C. school for the 15-year-old that makes them that behind the competition. [sic]

The gentleman’s sentences didn’t quite parse—but he did know which group must be blamed! As she replied, Rhee’s own sentences didn’t parse. But she didn’t seem to challenge Matthews’ disgust with those teachers:

RHEE (continuing directly): Well, in D.C.’s public schools across the city, we were facing situations where yes! Children were not engaged in quality instruction. They did not have high standards for what we expected them to be able to do, and we had kids who were moving from grade level to grade level without the requisite skills and knowledge that they needed to be successful in life.

Presumably, Rhee meant that D.C.’s teachers “did not have high standards for what we expected them to be able to do.” (Or something like that.) But as they continued, these tools showed how dishonest such minions will be when they recite the latest scripts approved by their billionaire bosses.

As he continued, Matthews began to thunder about “social promotion,” a topic he has heard discussed at a million cocktail parties. In her reaction, Rhee showed the world how baldly dishonest she’s sometimes willing to be:

MATTHEWS (continuing directly): So what’s a teacher do when they do a social promotion? Do they just say, “Well, that’s the deal! That’s the deal here?”

RHEE: Well, remember, this isn’t, this isn’t a problem with teachers with social promotion. This is a policy that school districts often put in place, saying that it’s going to be better for the welfare of the children if we move them along. But what we don’t realize is that we’re so focused on how to make kids feel good that we’re actually not teaching them how to read and do math, which is really what is going to make them feel proud of themselves.

MATTHEWS: Well, if you can’t do double-digit multiplication, you certainly can’t do quadratic equation. So, what good is the promotion?

Every know-nothing in the world understands that he should rail against “social promotion.” But this isn’t a problem with teachers, Rhee said. It’s a policy problem, she said—and the policy is made by school districts.

Should low-income school systems outlaw “social promotion?” As everyone in such school systems knows, the very idea is quite ludicrous. Many, many low-income children are years behind traditional grade level by the third or fourth grade; in fact, many such kids are way “behind” on the day they enter kindergarten. If “social promotion” were outlawed in big urban systems, fourth-grade classrooms would be crawling with kids who were fourteen or fifteen years old; anyone who has ever set foot in an urban school knows how absurd this notion is, even if it seems to make sense to people like Matthews, who has never dirtied his hands in such places. (Beyond that, studies routinely show that making children repeat a grade increases the likelihood that they will drop out before they finish high school.)

Simply put, there is no real instructional advantage to making children repeat a grade—and there are obvious disadvantages. In big city systems, so many kids are so far “behind” that the notion makes no sense at all. But there was Matthews, throwing down familiar thunder. And there was Rhee, seeming to agree with his view—and baldly dissembling.

In what way was Rhee dissembling? Readers, just reread her statement. After that, riddle us this:

How many Hardball viewers got the impression that Rhee must have outlawed “social promotion” in Washington’s schools? That this must have been one of the stands about which Matthews fawned all through this segment? The lady did no such thing, of course. In the spring of 2009, 52 percent of Washington elementary grade students scored below “proficient” on DC’s annual reading test. (That same year, 81 percent of District fourth-graders scored below “proficient” in reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.) Do you recall reading about the way Rhee required 52 percent of all grade school kids to repeat their grade in 2010? Duh! Of course you don’t! But there was Rhee, playing along with Matthews, seeming to imply that she herself was opposed to “social promotion”—that she was opposed to this very bad policy school districts keep dreaming up!

Of course, fake and phony “educational reformers” have played this card for a very long time. (It tends to sound very good to the public. To the extent that these “reformers” are actually clueless, it may even sound good to them!) Example: New York City’s billionaire mayor is one of the biggest frauds in this field. Back in October, the New York Times described what happened when this ballyhooed god of “education reform” pretended to outlaw social promotion—although, because Bloomberg is such a god, Jennifer Medina wasn’t willing to report what had actually happened.

Did a billionaire mayor outlaw social promotion? Citizens, welcome to Pravda, and to upper-class Gotham folkways:

MEDINA (10/11/10): In 2003, Mr. Bloomberg ended the practice of ''social promotion'' in certain grades, requiring students performing at the lowest levels on the tests be held back unless they attended summer school and showed progress on a retest. That year, Mr. Klein released a list of 200 successful schools, the only places where teachers would not have to follow the citywide math and English curriculums. The list was primarily based on test scores.

Please. According to Medina’s frightened prose, Bloomberg required students who flunked statewide tests to be held back—unless they attended summer school and showed progress on a retest (our emphasis). Of course, “showing progress on a retest” isn’t the same thing as performing at traditional grade level. To state what is blindingly obvious, Bloomberg didn’t “end social promotion” at all! But Medina bowed low to the godlike mayor, saying he “ended the practice of social promotion” (“in certain grades!”) even though he plainly didn’t. For the record, this was part of Medina’s long report on a multi-year fraud by the billionaire mayor, in which he praised himself for the city’s rising test scores, long after it was clear than the test scores in question were being recorded on rather shaky tests.

(In August, the state of New York renounced all those scores, acknowledging that its statewide testing program had, in effect, been a multi-year fraud. As a general matter, the Times has tiptoed all around, trying to avoid asking too many questions about the way the godlike mayor played the nation for fools as he bragged about the scores achieved on the worthless tests.)

Bloomberg is one of the billionaire clowns to whom the tools bow low on the subject of “school reform.” Rhee is one of the leading minions—although she may be so dumb, so angry, so inexperienced, so clueless that she believes many of the foolish things she says. In this case, she played along with a clueless TV host on the subject of social promotion—although the pair quickly zeroed in on the actual villains.

Matthews praised the greatness of the nation’s Catholic schools, offering a deeply ludicrous statement on which we will focus tomorrow. (Do not miss!) In reply, Rhee penned a new chapter in the history of passive aggression:

MATTHEWS (12/15/10): Yes. Is [sic] the teachers unions of America, are they for education or for the teachers?

RHEE: Well, look, you know, people want to give teachers’ unions a hard time right now and the people are saying, “Well, why aren’t the unions coming along? Why don’t, why don’t we get them to change? Why can’t they embrace reform?”

But the bottom line is, the purpose of the teachers union is to protect their members. It’s to maximize the pay and the privileges of the teachers.

So, the teachers unions aren’t really the problem. They’re just doing their job and they’re doing an excellent job of that.

But the problem is that when you—when all you have as a special interest group is the teachers union and you don’t have an organized interest group that’s advocating on behalf of children, then you create an imbalance where the policies and laws that are put in place are put in place, you know, for adults instead of for children.

And that’s the purpose of my new organization, Students First, is we’re going to advocate and put pressure on decision-makers and politicians to put kids first.

“People” want to give teachers’ unions a hard time? One of those people is Rhee herself; few minions in the current war have hammered the unions harder. In this response to Matthews, she maintained that pose—though butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth! The unions are doing a good job, she said—a good job “maximizing the pay and the privileges of the teachers!” It would be left to Rhee’s heroic new org to put our children first!

Surely, many legitimate criticisms can be lodged against our teachers unions. Surely, many teachers really are “boring,” “lugubrious,” perhaps even “asleep;” obviously, some teachers actually are “letting kids get away with bad discipline,” even if Rhee was forced to admit that “social promotion” isn’t their fault. But Matthews knew all the current scripts as he trashed America’s teachers and their infernal teachers unions—as he dumbly trashed “social promotion,” a topic on which he knows nothing. Loathsome swells have played such cards for decades now, pretending to care about low-income children even as they refuse to study the low-class topic. Tomorrow, we’ll examine the ludicrous thing this minion said about his own daughter’s school. And we’ll start to answer the question Rhee ducked:

Why don’t American kids score at the top on big international tests?

Tomorrow—part 3: Minion’s daughter!