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Daily Howler: The Post reviewed DC's charter schools--and committed a statistical blunder
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IN SEARCH OF THOSE FAMOUS THREE R’s! The Post reviewed DC’s charter schools—and committed a statistical blunder: // link // print // previous // next //

Stanley misses the sex: Darlings, Alessandra has been at it again, purring her views from inside the palace. “I miss the sex,” she purred at the start. No one could sensibly doubt that:

STANLEY (12/21/08): I miss the sex.

The nation is engrossed in an orgy of scandal, a 24-hour cable news burlesque of greed, graft, cronyism and corruption, with appointed villains so lurid and over-the-top they could be characters in “Bleak House.” (Even their names, Madoff and Blagojevich, have a Dickensian ring, like Skimpole or Pardiggle.)

The most salacious news stories pivot on money, not mistresses, prostitutes or toe taps in an airport men’s room. It’s the 10th anniversary of Monicagate and the impeachment of President Clinton, and even the Fox News Channel cannot summon the energy to dwell on Linda Tripp or the semen-stained dress. (At the moment, muckrakers are studying Clinton donors, not doxies.)

We weren’t familiar with the word “doxies” either. (Just click here. We assume she isn’t referring to dachshunds.) But then, we don’t miss—or obsess on—the sex, as Villagers frequently do.

Darlings, these matters remain a big joke in these realms. But then, you may have understood that. Just keep reading:

Burnett achieves Job One: In the Village, they simply love typing their favorite novels—and the old-fashioned “Major Dem scandal tale” is a time-honored winner. On yesterday’s Meet the Press, NPR’s Michele Norris teamed with NBC’s Erin Burnett to show us how a favored old tale can be easily conjured.

And sure enough! In the process, they accomplished “Job One!” They got us back to the sex!

At issue was a “new classic” question: Will the Blagojevich matter somehow involve or harm or discredit Obama? When David Gregory threw out the question, Norris reacted quickly. And as she did, she displayed a Key Novelist Skill: She repeated something Obama has said, then imagined what “it may have been better” for him to have said. The “difficult situation” has been created “by the Obama team in part,” she of course said:

GREGORY (12/21/08): Is there some exposure here, politically, for Obama?

NORRIS: It’s been—it’s a difficult situation for them, having been made by the Obama team in part because, at the outset, when he said, “My team had no inappropriate contact,” it may have been better to say, “Of course we were speaking to the governor.”

GREGORY: Mm-hmm.

It may have been better to have said something else, Norris mused, to Gregory’s satisfaction. And this is where the mind-reading started. Yes, Norris knew what Obama had actually said. But so what? Through her cohort’s unexplained powers, she somehow knew what the public had “heard:”

NORRIS (continuing directly): Of course someone was speaking to the governor, because it would be unusual, very unusual if someone on that team—Rahm Emanuel sits in the Senate [sic] seat that was once held by Rod Blagojevich! So they said that there’s no inappropriate contact. What people heard, there is no contact.


The novelist is a clairvoyant. In reality, Obama had said there was no inappropriate contact between his team and the Blagojevich office. But being clairvoyant, Norris knew what “people” had actually “heard:” Obama had said there was no inappropriate contact, but people had heard something different! Norris, like the rest of her mind-reading cohort, seemed unembarrassed as she announced this key fact.

And then, the discussion hit rock bottom. After a bit more mind-reading by Norris—after a display of lurid imagination by Gregory—a second fiddle jumped in the stew, haplessly saying this:

BURNETT: Right. What—what defines the word “inappropriate?”


BURNETT: What does that mean? I mean, you chose that word. Was it a loaded term or not? I mean, “I did not have sex with that woman.”


BURNETT: I mean, terms mean something.

Sorry, but no: You can’t get dumber. Norris’ novelization was sad. But this was sheer inanity.

In this utterly hopeless passage, Burnett seems to say, several times, that she doesn’t know what the word “inappropriate” means! And apparently, she had been missing the sex, just like her sad neighbor, Stanley. It’s embarrassing to see this national figure making such an inane presentation—but it did allow her to do the thing her Village cohort loves best. It let her recite the string of words these life-forms prefer to all other words: I did not have sex [sic] with that woman! By the magic of novelization, Obama’s uncontradicted statement—his staff did nothing inappropriate, he said—had returned us to that woman, Miss Lewinsky, the one woman these life-forms ever loved.

(No, that’s not what Bill Clinton actually said, almost eleven years ago. But people! The pundits were typing a favorite tale—a novel telling the one sad story these sad, empty ciphers can love.)

The panel may have been missing the sex. A skilled scribe provided great pleasure.

IN SEARCH OF THOSE FAMOUS THREE R’s: Our world would be a better place with a more competent public education discussion. Often, editors grouse about schoolchildren’s low reading scores—while failing to show much competence with those famous “Three R’s” themselves.

Consider one part of this Washington Post editorial about DC’s charter schools. The editorial appeared in Saturday’s paper; the editors were reacting to a two-part news report which had appeared on the Post’s front pages (links below). As they started, the editors made a truly significant judgment—a judgment which strikes us as badly flawed, a point we’ll review tomorrow.

But on the simplest level, how well do our journalists read, write and cipher when they discuss the public schools? At one point, the editors said this:

WASHINGTON POST EDITORIAL (12/20/08): A recent Post analysis confirmed the "solid academic lead" of [DC] charter students over those in [DC] traditional schools. According to The Post's analysis, students in middle-school charters scored 19 points higher than their peers in regular schools on national reading tests and 20 points higher in math. Charters also did better on such measures as attendance and graduation rates. Teachers in the charters are more likely to be "highly qualified.”

Good grief. “According to The Post's analysis, students in middle-school charters scored 19 points higher than their peers in regular schools on national reading tests and 20 points higher in math?” Yes, this is a relatively minor part of a longer editorial. But this presentation by the Post is barely coherent. Readers should avert their gaze, out of embarrassment for the Post’s eds.

For starters, the editors are simply wrong on a basic factual point. According to the Post analysis in question, it was actually low-income students in DC charters who outscored than their low-income peers in traditional schools by the specified amounts. By leaving that qualifier to the side, the editors missed the entire focus of their paper’s news report. That report focused on DC’s low-income students, not on DC students generally. This point was made again and again in the news report—but somehow, the editors missed it. When it comes to this basic point, the editors dont seam to have red their own newz report reel wel.

But a second part of that highlighted statement had our analysts shaking their heads. “According to The Post's analysis, [low-income] students in middle-school charters scored 19 points higher than their peers in regular schools?” That statement doesn’t say much of anything at all—unless you say what test is involved, and unless you explain how big a gap in reading achievement that “19 points” may represent. Duh! On some reading tests, a 19-point score differential will suggest a large gap in reading achievement; on other tests, a 19-point gap might be quite minor. It all depends on the scale of the test; until the test has been named and described in some way, the editors’ numbers mean nothing at all. A 19-point score gap may be fairly minor—on a combined SAT score, for example. On some other test, a 19point gap may be quite significant.

So the editors’ attempt at quantification told us nothing at all. But sure enough, that’s exactly the way this “information” was presented in the Post’s original news report, which was quite lengthy (more than 3000 words). Dan Keating and Theola Labbe-DeBose had penned the front-page report. And uh-oh! This was paragraph 9 of their 75-paragraph effort:

KEATING (12/15/08): District children in both systems still fall short of national averages on standardized tests. But students in charter schools have been more successful at closing the gap. According to a Washington Post analysis of recent national test results for economically disadvantaged students, D.C. middle-school charters scored 19 points higher than the regular public schools in reading and 20 points higher in math.

If you study one of the accompanying graphics, you might be able to deduce that the test in question is the (highly-regarded) National Assessment of Educational Progress—the so-called “nation’s report card.” (You might also see that we’re talking about 2007, the most recent year for which NAEP results are available.) But good grief! Keating and Labbe-DeBose were no more helpful than the editors when it comes to explaining those score differentials. Do the score differences suggest big gaps in reading and math achievement—or are those 19- and 20-point gaps relatively insignificant? It all depends on the scale of the test—and in the actual text of their lengthy report, Keating and Labbe-DeBose didn’t even name the “national test,” let alone offer any hint about what those score gaps might suggest.

This is a striking bit of statistical illiteracy—a blunder so striking that we’ll assume it was made by unnamed editors, not by Keating and Labbe-DeBose themselves. But five days later, the editorial board discussed this news report—and the editors committed the same basic blunder. The board put those numbers into its piece—but by themselves, without explanation. those numbers tell us nothing at all. It’s like saying a child “weighs 122" without saying if that’s kilograms, or maybe pounds, or maybe about some other unit of weight altogether.

Charter school kids scored 19 points higher? All by its lonesome, that number tells us nothing at all! But so it goes when our biggest news orgs discuss low-income education.

What’s the truth about those score gaps? If our understanding of the NAEP scale is correct, those gaps, if accurate, would be quite substantial. Indeed, such score differentials would suggest that low-income kids in DC charters were doing much better in reading and math than their peers in “regular schools.” Indeed, those score differentials would be so great that they’d deserve a headline all their own. Let’s state the obvious: The Post should have explained what those score gaps suggest. And if they suggest what we think they suggest, a great deal more should have ensued.

The Post should have explained what those score gaps suggest. But that sort of thing would occur in a different world, a world whose discussion of public ed is vastly different from our own. The editors looked like a bunch of chumps when they failed to explain what those score gaps suggest. But so it often goes in our world: News orgs lament the way schoolkids read, write and cipher, while failing to show elementary skill in their own use of those Three R’s.

Tomorrow: The editors seek to explain why charter schools are doing better.

That two-part news report: The Post did two front-page reports on DC’s charter schools. For the first report, just click here. The second report appeared one day later.