FEEL-GOOD LOW-INCOME SCHOOLS! Journalists love those feel-good taleswhen they come from our low-income schools: // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, JANUARY 9, 2009
Margaret Carlson had a feeling/Or, were all Ann Coulter now: Well skip that promised last dose of football facts.(Maybe Monday.) Instead, lets discuss Margarets feeling.
On Tuesday night, Keith Olbermann was dragging his usual collection of guests onto the air at Countdown. As we noted on Wednesday, his first two guests went out of their way to breathe that most wonderful name: Miss Lewinsky. To Olbermanns credit, he rolled his eyes the first time this happened. But when his second guest did the same thing, he seemed to know hed been defeated.
But Olbermann had one more miserable guest to throw at his viewers this evening. It doesnt get worse than Margaret Carlsonbut all through the hour, Olbermann kept suggesting that Carlson had some breaking news to offer us about the Blair House matter. Heres how he previewed Carlsons appearance, right at the top of the program:
Wow! Carlson had breaking news about an incredible insult! We knowyouve never seen the terms Margaret Carlson and breaking news in the same sentence! But as the evening proceeded, Olbermann kept throwing raw, red meat to us, his liberal rubes:
Youre right! With the use of that little world may, Olbermann had already scaled back the promise hed been makingthe promise that Carlson would present breaking news, and ugly details, about an incredible insult. By now, he no longer seemed completely sure about the truth of Carlsons story. But, when Carlson finally arrived, it was much as you might have expected. Carlson had no news or reporting to offer at all, though she herself used the latter term. She didnt offer any new facts about this lingering story. Instead, Margaret Carlson had a feelingand that was plainly all she had. We offer you the full exchange, the breaking news Keith had been pimping:
Please understand: In 1999 and 2000, Carlson endlessly ridiculed Gore on CNN, thereby helping put Bush in the White House. Now, shes just extremely upset by all the vast harm he has done.
Why couldnt the Obamas stay at Blair House? We dont knowbut Carlson had no information that wasnt made public all the way back in mid-December. There was no sign that shed done any reporting; she had no breaking news at all. (The fact that Howard would spend one night at Blair House had been released by the White House.) What she did have was a feelinga feeling that didnt exactly make sense. Lets look again at the pitiful way these hacks throw sweet hay to their herd:
Interesting! As it happens, we have a feeling that Carlsons from Neptune. Might we go on Countdown tonight and have this promoted as news?
Why arent the Obamas staying at Blair House? We dont know, but Carlson had no informationnone at allto demonstrate that this was spit in the punch bowl or an incredible insult. Indeed, even her feeling didnt quite make sense. Back in December, a White House spokesman had said there were previously scheduled events and guests that couldn't be displaced during the period in question (though the spokesman said this included no foreign dignitaries). For that reason, Howards newly-scheduled stay really wouldnt be a plausible explanation for the earlier denial to the Obamas. As with so many of Margarets past feelings, this feeling didnt quite parse.
Whats the story with the Blair House? For ourselves, we dont much care. But Carlson has had an entire month to do some reportorial snoopingto develop some real information about this overblown matter. By Tuesday night, she hadnt done thatshe just had a feelingbut that seems to be good enough when youre throwing sweet hay to us rubes. And by the way: If you doubt our assessment of Olbermanns standards, heres what happened this very same night when he crowned the worlds Worst Person:
In fact, the columnist was an Alaska talk hostand he had no evidence that the Palins had interceded on Levi Johnstons behalf. Olbermann was too disingenuous to say so, but Levi Johnstons father works for the company involved in his sons apprenticeship; he had already told the Anchorage Daily News that his own position as an ASRC construction engineer accounts for any help his son received in landing work through the firm. (For the ADNs full report, just click here.) This silly issue was never worth discussing, and Olbermann plainly had no idea what had actually happened. But so what? During the show, hed also promoted this turkey:
Apparently, if you just ask a question, or say your targets accused, that doesnt count as a statement.
This was a very bad program. It started with the Lewinsky nonsense; moved on to a kiss-kiss interview with Ezra Klein in which he kiss-kiss-kissed about Sanjay Gupta; and proceeded through these endless promos, for breaking news that didnt exist, for a worst person in the world whose denial Olbermann said he believed. And, of course, the ultimate insult: The use of hacks like Carlson and Fineman as regular guests on this liberal program. But what made the evening even more striking was Olbermanns lecture about Ann Coulter, who was righteously said to have no ethics and no standards and no self-respect! We agree with those judgments of Coulter; indeed, we worked on them, long before Olbermann got here. But we were having a hard time this night telling Keith and Coulter apart. Coulter has always treated her readers like fools. Increasingly, thats the way this liberal hero treats his liberal viewers.
We wasted our time, for years on end, documenting this sort of thing when it came from the pseudo-right. Today, Olbermann earns $5 million per year throwing this same sh*t at you.
PART 4FEEL-GOOD LOW-INCOME SCHOOLS: Journalists love certain feel-good talesand often work quite poorly with facts. For a moment, forget the feel-good death-camp tales that seem to drive so many films. Instead, consider a feel-good story about low-income schools from yesterdays Washington Post.
Marc Fisher wrote the piece, having visited Broad Acres Elementary School in suburban Montgomery County (Maryland). The schools student population is almost wholly black and Hispanic; that seems to include a lot of kids whose parents are immigrants. Lets be clear: Until were shown different, well assume that Broad Acres is an admirable school, run by superlative, hard-working teachers. (God bless them all, every one.) But Fisher knows nothing about public ed. To prove that, he was soon offering this:
Wow! That jump in passing rate sounded greatbut its meaning just isnt clear. Almost surely, Fisher didnt have a clue about what follows; for decades, the Washington Post has insulted the world with its know-nothing, feel-good education coverage. But that change in passing rate closely mirrors the change in passing rates among black and Hispanic kids statewide, in the six years under study. This may mean that such kids are reading much better. (Although in theory, a large gain in passing rate can derive from a small gain in average scores.) But then again, it may just mean that Marylands reading tests have gotten easier down through the years.
This question is very important.
What has happened to statewide passing rates? Maryland releases its data on a grade-by-grade basisand in 2003, fourth-graders werent yet being tested. (All data can be found at this site. Youll have to jump around a bitto this page, for example.) But from 2003 to 2008, the statewide passing rate for Hispanic kids has essentially matched the size of the change recorded at Broad Acres. In 2003, 39.2 percent of Hispanic kids passed the third-grade reading test; by 2008, the statewide passing rate had jumped to 73.3 percent. And in fifth grade, the statewide gain was almost as large. In 2003, 51.4 percent of Hispanic kids passed the state reading test; in 2008, the passing rate was 82.6 percent. Over the course of these years, similar jumps in passing rate were recorded by Marylands black students. (For those data, see below.)
Passing rates have soared at Broad Acresbut then, theyve soared all over the state. We hate to kill a feel-good talethe kind of story your journalists lovebut this reduces Fishers piece to a bit of know-nothing non-analysis.
Why have those passing rates jumped statewide? At present, there is no way to know, though Fisher almost surely didnt realize that fact. It may be that Marylands kids are just reading betterbut then too, the jump in statewide passing rates may reflect easier tests. Have the tests in the state gotten easier? The state produces no technical manual settling this blindingly obvious question, as any professional test-maker wouldand anyone who follows public education knows that this question has popped up all over the country in the years since accountability has driven up pressure on test scores. (For the record, we strongly favor annual testing.) But big news orgs like the Washington Post seem to like simple, feel-good stories a bit more than they like real facts. The paper persistently embarrasses itself with its incompetent education reporting. It does so because it loves heartwarming talesand doesnt seem to care about kids.
Over the holidays, we read the latest groaning report about the latest death-camp tale (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/6/09)about the latest bogus, feel-good tale about life in the prison camps. For some reason, people seem to love these tales; no matter how implausible such stories may be, some publisheror some TV hostcant wait to promote them. But when we read about that latest fake tale, we thought about another familiar type of tale, the kind which comes from our low-income schoolsthe kind of corrupted, feel-good tales which have blighted education journalism for roughly forty years now. Journalists have always loved these heartwarming storiesand theyve refused to learn how to work with real facts. And yes, you can always count on these scribes to do this again. Indeed, we started this series on Tuesday morning. Two days later, Marc Fisher obliged us.
Lets say it again, as we end: We assume that Broad Acres is an admirable school, full of admirable, hard-working teachers. But what does those jumps in test scores mean, at Broad Acres or in the whole state? Fisher offered a pleasing story. A more serious newspaper would employ people who knew how to work with basic test scoreswith bare-boned, essential, real facts.
Three cheers for Broad Acres: Please note: We dont know how much of those statewide gains may have resulted from easier tests; real newspapers should demand that the state provide technical manuals. Meanwhile, it may be that Broad Acres kids are more disadvantaged (in relevant ways) than most black and Hispanic kids in Maryland. Someone who did a real report about this school would pursue these facts further than we have. At any rate, the size of this schools passing-rate gains closely match those of the state.
But Post reporterseven the papers education reportersrarely show any real signs of any real technical competence. (Fishers a general-interest columnist. Did he show his piece to an education editor?) Thats how they managed, in 2006, to praise a school at the top of page onea school which turned out to have the second-lowest reading score in the whole state of Virginia! (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/9/06.) Serious people dont work this wayif they actually give a fig about the subject at hand.
Have Marylands tests been getting easier? Thats the basic question hereand this obvious question is very important. The Post should insist that the state show its work, in an appropriate technical manual. Until it does, those changes in passing rates may not mean squat. Bottom line, for the ten millionth time: When will the Post do its job?
Marylands black kids: Passing rates have also jumped among Marylands black students. This is very good news, if it means kids are reading better. Or itss totally meaningless news, if it reflects easier tests.
In 2003, 41.4 percent of black kids passed the states third-grade reading test; by 2008, the statewide passing rate had jumped to 74.2 percent. In fifth grade, 48.0 percent of black kids passed the reading test in 2003; in 2008, the passing rate was 78.4 percent. How much does that reflect actual growthand how much does that reflect easier tests? At present, there is no way to knowand the Post keeps settling for that.