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Daily Howler: Russert tried to ''clarify''--and left things clear as mud
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THE COURIC SHOW (PART 2)! Russert tried to “clarify”—and left things clear as mud: // link // print // previous // next //

A NOTE ON OUR SCHEDULE: We may not post again until Thursday—perhaps until Thursday afternoon. Our technical nerve center will be moving.

DO KIPP SCHOOLS RULE? DO PUBLIC SCHOOLS DROOL? Do kids learn more in private schools? Yesterday, we discussed a study which suggests that they don’t, not as a general matter (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/30/06). But in this morning’s Washington Post, Jay Mathews discusses a set of well-regarded charter schools whose test scores tend to be very impressive. These are the KIPP schools (Knowledge is Power Program)—a nationwide set of small, grade 5-8 urban middle schools which create a highly novel school culture. In this passage, Mathews refers to Mike Feinberg, and Dave Levin, who founded the schools in 1994:

MATHEWS (1/31/06): [T]hey fashioned a system of nine-hour school days with extra pay for teachers, an emphasis on character, behavior and students' future in college, and Saturday classes. The program included teacher visits to student homes, mandatory summer school, a requirement for students to call teachers at night if they had homework questions and an elaborate system of student sanctions and rewards, including a year-end trip to some other part of the country.
Nine-hour schools days? Saturday classes? Mandatory summer school? Phone calls to teachers? “All of this helped produce the highest test scores among middle schools in the Houston and South Bronx areas,” Mathews writes. Do kids learn more in these (urban) charter schools? From the following passage, the answer may seem clear:
MATHEWS (1/31/06): Students on average are at the 28th percentile in reading and math on national standardized tests when they enter KIPP. The first five KIPP schools in the country, including [Susan] Schaeffler's KIPP DC: KEY Academy, show students rising to the 74th percentile by the end of eighth grade, according to figures supplied by the San Francisco-based KIPP Foundation.
KIPP kids enter at the 28th percentile—and four years later, they leave at the 74th. The success of this rigorous program seems clear. As always, though, there can be problems when we try to judge and interpret such statements.

This passage seems to answer a crucial question: Is KIPP doing well with typical urban kids? Or do its schools attract kids who are more capable—and more motivated—than the mass of kids who attend public schools? Yesterday, we saw what that new study showed—that, while private school kids tend to score better on tests, the advantage tends to disappear when we adjust for income and other family characteristics. But here we see an impressive statistic; KIPP kids only score at the 28th percentile when they enter (in fifth grade)—but they score much higher by the time they finish. This suggests that KIPP kids are no great shakes when they enter, but are doing much better when they leave.

But uh-oh! There may be a problem with that statistic; it may be comparing apples to kumquats. According to KIPP, its graduating eighth-grade students test at the 74th percentile. But did those same kids test at the 28th percentile when they entered in the fifth grade? Or was that the average score for all entering KIPPsters, some of whom may have left the program by the time those eighth grade scores are compiled? If we want to compare apples to apples, we have to compare the test scores of emerging eighth graders with their own test scores from the time that they entered. It isn’t clear that this statistic does that. But so it often annoyingly goes when we try to evaluate claims made by schools and school programs.

KIPP seems to be achieving good test scores. But are its kids really run-of-the-mill, or is the program achieving these score with a higher grade of student? Later, Mathews presents two conflicting views on that basic question:

MATHEWS (1/31/06): Looking at four KIPP schools, Columbia University Teachers College researchers Richard Rothstein and Rebecca Jacobsen concluded that students starting the program in fifth grade had more motivated parents and better test scores than their community averages. KIPP officials said their data showed no significant difference in academic skills between their entering students and other nearby children.
Given its rigorous program (and its teachers’ dedication), we have always assumed that KIPP might well produce above-average student achievement. But here again, we see the question that must always be asked when analyses like this are offered. To what extent does a program like KIPP attract a more motivated, more capable type of student? In the study we looked at yesterday, researchers found that public schools did better than private schools when such matters were factored in. This basic question must always be asked when programs are reviewed in this way.

SADLY, ANOTHER QUESTION: Sadly, another question must always be asked in these matters—is the testing on the level? Over the course of the past forty years, schools and school systems have endlessly cheated to produce high scores on high-stakes exams. (And yes, we’re talking about cheating herenot about “teaching to the test.”) Sometimes, this is done deliberately; in other cases, well-meaning educators may engage in bogus practices without understanding that their conduct is wrong. For ourselves, we’ve always assumed that KIPP is on the side of the angels; we’ll continue to think so until we’re shown otherwise. But here’s a passage about that DC KEY Academy (see above) which simply has to give pause:

MATHEWS (1/31/06): [Its] first class of D.C. students, all black and 84 percent from low-income households, had average math scores that went from the 34th percentile when the students entered fifth grade in 2001 to the 92nd percentile when they completed eighth grade last year, and were the highest in the city last year at the school...
Forgive us our suspicious mind, which we acquired through long experience. But if that means that the average eighth-grader at this low-income school was scoring at the 92nd percentile, we’d want to see that result replicated—replicated by a set of tests conducted by outside professionals.

Is it possible—is it imaginable—that some KIPP schools could, in some way, be screwing up their testing procedures? Oddly, Mathews doesn’t raise the question today. We say “oddly” because of an excellent piece which Mathews wrote just two weeks ago. That on-line piece was also about the KIPP schools—and Mathews did raise this delicate question, as was completely appropriate. In a long, thoughtful passage about KIPP’s test scores, Mathews noted that “judging schools is a very tricky business.” Then he offered this remark about that jump in test scores:

MATHEWS (1/17/06): Among the most important things to say, for instance, about that astounding jump in math and reading achievement from the 28th to the 74th percentile is that it is based not on an independent study but on standardized tests that KIPP teachers gave to their own students. KIPP schools are run by their mostly young principals, not by the KIPP Foundation, and the principals decide which tests to use and conduct the testing. The schools in the report gave the Stanford 9 or Stanford 10 tests or the Iowa Test of Basic Skills.

These are popular tests used by many school districts to see how their students compare to a national sample of students, and are as good as you are going to get in the world of relatively inexpensive off-the-shelf tests. But this is still KIPP testing itself, and that should be kept in mind. There are several cases of public school principals changing standardized test papers to enhance their results when they have had an opportunity to do so.

High praise to Mathews for obliquely noting, in that last sentence, that principals sometimes overtly cheat on such high-stakes tests. For the record, the fact that it’s the Stanford 9 or the Iowa Test has nothing to do with the issue at hand. It’s especially easy to cheat on such tests, whose items don’t change from year to year, or to invalidate them unknowingly; indeed, this has happened again and again (and again and again), in documented cases all over the country. Good for Mathews! In raising this caution flag, he did something education scribes rarely do. His piece today would have been much stronger if this concern had not been dropped.

We assume that KIPP is on the side of the angels. We assume that its rigorous program—and the dedication of its teachers—is producing better results than its students would have attained in their neighborhood public schools. But if we actually care about what is true, we’ll “trust but verify” in such matters. How “typical” are the kids at KIPP? And can KIPP’s high test scores be replicated? We have no idea what the answers may be. But if we care about urban schools, the questions must be asked—every time.

CINDERELLA MAN: For the record, Mathews himself has come a long way since starting out at Hillsdale High. To recall his own Cinderella story, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/28/05.

Special report: The Couric Show!

PART 2—RUSSERT, CLEAR AS MUD: How cosmically dumb is our public discourse? To all appearances, Katie Couric was totally clueless when Howard Dean did the Today show last Thursday (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/30/06). Dean offered Couric a familiar old point—Jack Abramoff didn’t give any money to Dems. By this time, anyone would have known what the Dem chairman meant. But Couric—she’s paid millions—was clueless:

COURIC (1/26/06): Hey, wait a second! Democrats took money—Democrats took money from Jack Abramoff, too, Mr. Dean!

DEAN: That is absolutely false! That did not happen! Not one dime of money from Jack Abramoff went to any Repub—Democrat at any time.

COURIC: According—let me just tell you. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Abramoff and his associates gave $3 million to Republican and one—Republicans—and $1.5 million to Democrats including Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid.

Pathetic! Dean was talking about Abramoff’s personal giving. Couric responded with information about the giving of Abramoff’s clients. By this time, any sentient American scribe should have understood this distinction, which had been kicked around for weeks. But to all appearances, Couric—paid millions—didn’t understand what Dean meant. She closed the segment with a pitiful promise: “Well, we'll obviously have to look into that and clarify that for our viewers.”

Good grief! But then, how dumb is America’s discourse? The next day, Tim Russert showed up to “clarify”—and yes, the dumbness dragged on. Here was the initial exchange when Matt Lauer raised the confounding conundrum, the one that had even stumped Katie:

LAUER (1/27/06): Let's talk about the Abramoff scandal. Howard Dean was on this program yesterday and asserted basically that it is a Republican scandal. Let me play you a clip.

DEAN (videotape): It is a Republican-financed scandal. Not one dime of money from Jack Abramoff ever went to any Democrat. Not one dime.

LAUER: And Katie pressed him on that, and then we, we did some research. We went to the Center for Responsive Politics and we found out that, technically speaking, Howard Dean may be correct. But here's what we found. That 66 percent of the money in this situation went to Republicans, but 34 percent of the money—not from Abramoff, but from his associates and clients—went to Democrats. So, can Democrats wash their hands of this?

Many observers have chided Lauer for saying that Dean was just “technically” correct. We wouldn’t have phrased it that way ourselves, but we’re less upset than these others have been, because Dean was flogging a needlessly narrow point—a point he made no effort to clarify (more on that in Parts 3 and 4). For ourselves, we’ll focus on those Center for Responsive Politics numbers—the same data Couric had cited on Thursday. To our mind, Lauer’s citation was just as dumb as Couric’s original cluelessness.

What was wrong with Lauer’s presentation? Just this: There is absolutely nothing wrong with accepting donations from Abramoff’s clients! True, our system is built on conflict of interest, but that’s the way our campaign system works; a wide range of individuals and groups donate money to various pols every single day, and there is no assumption that something is “wrong” with such contributions until some such showing is actually offered. Did Abramoff’s clients donate $3 million to Republican pols, and $1.5 million to Dems? There is nothing wrong—or “scandalous”—about such donations until some specific showing is offered. Until some specific showing is made, there’s nothing wrong with this money being given to Dems—and there’s nothing wrong with the money being given to Reps! Groups make donations like this every day. Earth to Lauer: This is how our campaign system works!

Will it turn out that something was wrong with some of these campaign contributions? Prosecutors seem to be interested in some of these contributions, suspecting a “quid pro quo” was involved—but in the absence of such a finding, there is no apparent wrongdoing with the vast bulk of these gfits. Just what is the point of listing these data? More specifically, what must Democrats “wash their hands of?” On Thursday, Couric was weak on her facts. One day later, Matt was slow on his logic.

What exactly is supposed to be wrong with accepting donations from an Indian tribe? Answer: There has been no finding that anything was wrong with the vast majority of these donations. But Lauer—like many scribes before him—ran straight to these irrelevant data as if they somehow represented a string of troubling guilty pleas. And Russert failed to offer much “clarity.” Instead, he just mouthed a press script:

LAUER: So, can Democrats wash their hands of this?

RUSSERT: No. They will say it is primarily a Republican scandal because the personal money of Abramoff went only to Republicans. But, Matt, the issue is broad and wide. Democrats also understand that they accept trips from lobbyists and—and meals and so forth, and that's why in order to reform all this, it has to be a bipartisan approach. But Democrats get raging mad when they—you suggest this is a bipartisan scandal. They'll say “It's primarily Republican, but we're willing to help clean it up.”

By this time, all was clear as mud—just as our “press corps” constantly leaves it. Our question: Democrats get raging mad when you suggest that what is a bipartisan scandal? Clearly, Russert suggested that there was a “scandal” in the receipt of these funds from Abramoff’s clients. But what exactly is that scandal? Neither Lauer nor Russert really tried to explain. Instead, the hapless Lauer signed off, saying that we’d all be sure to watch Tim on Sunday morning.

Just what is the “bipartisan scandal?” What kind of “scandal” did Russert mean? As always, The Couric Show was clear as mud. Can this really be the best that these big TV stars can manage? Or is Couric’s program, like Truman’s show, a bit of a fake, staged event?

NEXT: As always, in thrall to the script.

WE KNOW, WE KNOW: We know, we know—studies have suggested that Abramoff’s clients gave more to Republicans once he took over. In some ways, this is hardly surprising; as some may recall, Republicans seized the White House in 2001, and began to consolidate power. But readers! Until some specific showing is made, there’s nothing wrong with Abramoff’s clients giving that money to Republicans either! Duh! That’s the way our campaign system works. What exactly is the “scandal” to which these muddled millionaires made reference?

Under our system, none of this giving counts as a “scandal”—until someone explains why it does. Russert, on The Couric Show, made no real effort to do so. He did adhere to a new press script, as we’ll discuss in Part 3.