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THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT MAURY! How do schools get ranked under NCLB? The process is “like sampling wine:” // link // print // previous // next //
TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 7, 2006

SURPRISINGLY THEY TURN: On Sunday’s This Week, RNC chairman Ken Mehlman dragged out his party’s new spin about the troubling Hillary Clinton. Clinton “has a lot of anger,” he said. Indeed, just in case viewers missed his statement, he offered the statement two times.

This is standard Republican “framing” of a Dem hopeful’s deeply troubling character. Indeed, over the course of the past fifteen years, this approach has worked amazingly well for Republicans. For example, when the RNC started trashing Candidate Gore in March 1999, the press corps took the bait and ran—and didn’t stop trashing Gore for the next twenty months, endlessly echoing RNC frameworks. Here at THE HOWLER, we’ve described that history-changing process in great detail (although career liberals still refuse to discuss it)—a process in which the mainstream press corps faithfully shouted RNC slanders. The pattern from Campaign 2000 is clear. Over and over, the RNC would lodge a factually-tortured complaint about Gore’s deeply troubling character. (Al Gore has a problem with the truth! He hired a woman to teach him how to be a man!) And over and over, for the course of two years, every Big Mainstream Scribe would recite it.

That’s why the corps’ reaction to Mehlman’s performance has been so completely remarkable. How did the press corps react on Monday? In a range of major venues (links below), the press corps actually went after Mehlman for offering this spin about Clinton’s bad character. Even on the crackpot cable show Hardball, a string of pundits criticized Mehlman’s performance, not Clinton. For example, here’s excitable host Chris Matthews, introducing Clinton aide Howard Wolfson:

MATTHEWS (2/6/06): We`re joined right now by Hillary Clinton adviser Howard Wolfson. Howard, thanks for coming on the show tonight. Why are the Republicans, why is their national chairman talking about someone`s emotional state? I`m not going to say never seen it, but it`s rare in politics. You talk about the other side`s emotions? Not their positions or where they stand or who they are even, but emotions? What are they up to here?
Of course, as everyone except liberal bloggers must know, Matthews has attacked the “emotional states” of Big Democrats for well over a decade. Last night, he pretended that he was surprised to think that someone would do such a thing.

For the record, this is how our Big Pundit Corps shows whose side they’re on. Politicians constantly “frame” their opponents. But when pundits don’t care for a given party or pol, they call attention to the act and pretend that it’s something unusual. In 1999, Matthews shouted every RNC frame against Gore; now, he calls attention to this new frame about Clinton, and acts surprised to see Mehlman present it. But then, everyone else knew to play it dumb too. Here, for example, was Hardball’s David Shuster, rewriting our nation’s recent history. According to Shuster, it was the Republicans who trashed first Gore, then Howard Dean:

SHUSTER (2/6/06) The attack on Senator Clinton`s temperament was one of the strongest attacks a top Republican has thrown at her in years. And the effort to tarnish her comes as Mrs. Clinton seems unstoppable in her Senate reelection campaign, and as polls show her to be the favorite among Democrats for the 2008 presidential campaign. The strategy of portraying somebody as angry and emotional is one the GOP has used before. In 2003:

HOWARD DEAN (videotape): You have the power, you have the power.

SHUSTER: Vermont governor Howard Dean raised more money than any other Democratic presidential candidate. Republicans repeatedly portrayed Dean as angry.

TOM DELAY (videotape): I think the Democrat platform for 2004 could be titled "Dean Flew Over the Cuckoo`s Nest." We would love to run against Howard Dean. He is so far out there on the fringe.

SHUSTER: And after Dean lost the 2004 Iowa caucuses, his rallying cry was ridiculed by the GOP non-stop.

DEAN (videotape): We`re going to South Dakota and Oregon and Washington and Michigan. And then we`re going to Washington D.C. to take back the White House. Yes!

SHUSTER: In the 2000 general election, Al Gore appeared to beat George W. Bush in the first presidential debate, but Republicans hammered Gore`s emotional demeanor and impatience.

GEORGE W. BUSH (videotape from Bush-Gore Debate I): Could be one year or two years.

GORE (videotape from Bush-Gore Debate I): Let me call your attention to the key word there.

SHUSTER: And for the next two debates, Gore seemed spooked.

Say what? Republicans “repeatedly portrayed Dean as angry?” Actually, the pundit corps repeatedly portrayed Dean that way—after that Iowa “rallying cry,” for example. (Note that, in the video clip, DeLay is not framing Dean as “angry.”) And Republicans hammered Gore after that crucial debate? Actually, it was the pundit corps which savaged Gore’s effort, as Matthews described in detail at the time—saying he couldn’t begin to understand the way his colleagues were scoring the debate, in which he said Gore had cleaned Bush’s clock. (Later, of course, Matthews flipped on this matter. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/15/02.) But then, your Big Pundit Corps constantly does this. They persistently disappear their own past conduct, pretending that someone else committed their own cohort’s sins. (Often, “late-night comedians” get the blame.) On last night’s Hardball, Matthews and Shuster played dumb about the past dozen years. And oh yes—they turned against Mehlman.

Why is this happening? We simply can’t say. But no one is faker than Hardball’s Chris Matthews. He proved it again last night.

WOLFSON’S PRIOR APPEARANCE: Last night, Matthews openly pandered to Wolfson—and this was quite a transformation. Wolfson hadn’t played Hardball since December 1999—and at that time, Matthews savaged him, challenging Clinton’s “emotional states.” Here’s a sample of the idiot fare Matthews served up so long ago, on Wolfson’s last prior appearance:

MATTHEWS (12/7/99): Well, let me ask you this: Is Hillary Clinton ambitious?

WOLFSON: Well, I think anyone who is running for office has an ambition. She has an ambition to do the right thing. She's ambitious to make positive change in the United States Senate.

MATTHEWS: Why are you hesitant to say she's ambitious?

WOLFSON: Well, I'm—I—

MATTHEWS: She wants to be the senator from New York, and you don't—you don't seem to be comfortable in saying that she's ambitious.

WOLFSON: Well, I'm saying—

MATTHEWS: That's a political ambition.

WOLFSON: Well, I'm saying that she's motivated by issues. She's—

MATTHEWS: She's not motivated by personal ambition?

WOLFSON: That may be what you would, would characterize.

MATTHEWS: I'm just asking.

WOLFSON: No, I—she—

MATTHEWS: I'm just asking. Does she have personal ambitions to rise into her chosen field of politics?

WOLFSON: She believes in public service, wants to be a public servant, wants to represent the people of New York to the, to the best of her abilities in the United States Senate.

MATTHEWS: It just seems like she want its both ways. She wants the position, but she doesn't want to admit to the ambition. That is a real conflict here, because she wants to be a politician and have all the benefits of political power and all the perks that go with it, but she doesn't even want to admit that she's a politician or someone with ambition. Neither—these are obvious and you can't admit them.

WOLFSON: Well, I don't think it's necessarily relevant. I think what matters is that she's running for office because she believes in better health care for—for folks, better schools for our children, the future of Social Security and Medicare. Those are the issues that she cares about. Those are the issues she spent a lifetime working on, and those are the issues that New Yorkers care the most about. What else—

MATTHEWS: What do you—

WOLFSON: What else—what else do you need to know?

MATTHEWS: I'd like to know what her ambitions are.

WOLFSON: Well, her ambitions are to go to the Senate and help every family get quality affordable health care.

MATTHEWS: But all those arguments that you give me would be an—would be justifications for a further run for the White House at the time when she also denies having any ambitions. I mean, at what point is she going to admit that she's going where she's headed, which is to get political power? People who seek political power are ambitious by definition. Do you agree?

WOLFSON: Well, if you—if you—if you say so. If it will make you happy, I'll agree.

On and on the stupidity went. Matthews battered Wolfson on a wide range of themes—endlessly casting bizarre aspersions on Clinton’s “emotional states.” Now, he pretends to be surprised to think that Mehlman would do such a thing. “It’s rare in politics,” the phony man says.

Matthews has long one of our biggest fakes. It’s sad to see Shuster dragged down with him.

HARDBALL’S ARDENT FEMINIST: When he spoke with Mitchell last night, Matthews was in a state of feminist dudgeon. “Look, what do you make of this attack?” he asked. “I will now ask, I will throw the magic word out here—gender. Is this focus on Senator Clinton`s emotional state, her anger level, aimed at her gender?” Matthews was upset to think that Mehlman was playing the gender card against Clinton. But has there ever been a more openly gender-based attack than that exchange about Clinton’s “ambition?” Have you ever seen a pundit repeatedly ask if a major male pol is “ambitious?” Matthews doesn’t ask this about Saint McCain or about Saint Giuliani. Instead, he fawns to their greatness.

Yes, Matthews is the phoniest man on the planet. But what happened last night was very notable. During the course of the day, the story-line jumped from the New York Times to liberal web sites and all the way to the crackpot show Hardball. Mehlman offered his pleasing new line about Clinton’s bad character—and the mainstream refused to play along. Indeed, they even called Mehlman on the carpet for his conduct! If this had occurred in March 1999—even after that first Bush-Gore debate—we can safely make an assumption: George Bush wouldn’t be in the White House.

A final note: We link above to Franklin Foer’s post about Mehlman in the on-line New Republic. If TNR had ever challenged the two-year War Against Gore, Bush might not have gone to the White House. But the careerist boys at TNR played it safe. Indeed, two of them (Lane and Milbank) accepted jobs, mid-campaign, at the Post—the big newspaper which was leading the mainstream press corps’ endless assault against Gore. When you laugh at Dana’s sessions with Keith, just remember how the Big Lug first got there.

Special report: There’s something about Maury!

PART 2—LIKE SAMPLING NEW WINE: No, it doesn’t really make sense to “demand” that schools improve their test scores every year—the basic demand which lies behind the No Child Left Behind act (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/6/06). After all, if a school is already functioning well, there may be no obvious room for improvement; and sometimes, factors beyond a school’s control can work against higher scores. As of summer 2004, one such factor seemed to be in place at Maury Elementary, a low-income school in Alexandria, Virginia. As we noted yesterday, Maury’s test scores were very low in the spring of 2004—which led to an outflow of middle-class students. Jay Mathews reports in the Post:

MATHEWS (2/1/06): In 2004, Maury students passed the state reading test at the lowest rate in Alexandria...

That triggered a provision of [No Child Left Behind] that allows parents to transfer their children to a better-performing school. Maury's enrollment dropped from 166 to 131. Middle-class parents were the first to leave, pushing the school's percentage of low-income children above 80 percent.

If more capable children are pulled from a school (as may have happened in this case), does it still make sense to “demand” improved scores the next year? In fact, Maury’s test scores did improve (or seem to improve) in the spring of 2005. But no, it doesn’t really make sense to “demand” that this happen every time.

But No Child Left Behind is in part motivational, and deserves to be measured as such. Perhaps it doesn’t quite make sense to “demand” that scores improve every year. But does this slightly kooky demand lead schools like Maury to try a bit harder? In fact, something like that does seem to have happened in the wake of Maury’s low scores. After Maury bombed in the spring of 04, Alexandria superintendent Rebecca Perry made a quick adjustment:

MATHEWS: [Perry] moved an unusually successful and energetic principal, Lucretia Jackson, into Maury and provided funds for new carpets, new tile walls, a new media center and more classroom space.

When Jackson arrived at Maury in the summer of 2004, she organized open houses for parents and put a sign out front that read, "Wanted: More Children to Love and Educate." She brought in volunteer tutors, made sure that no Maury class had more than 20 students and added hour-long after-school lessons three afternoons a week.

Perry brought in an “unusually successful and energetic” new principaland that new principal, Lucretia Jackson, began recruiting new students. Of course, to the extent that Jackson attracted such kids, then—by normal standards of analysis—that might also have made it harder to compare Maury’s scores from one year to the next. (Repeat this phrase: Apples and oranges.) And oh yeah—if Jackson really is an exceptional leader, then Maury’s gain was some other school’s loss. Did it make sense to “demand” that Jackson’s former school improve its test scores with its new principal—a principal who was likely less skilled than Jackson? Alas! Any way you try to slice it, it’s strange to “demand” improved scores every year. It’s hard to evade an elementary fact—except as a motivational tool, this “demand” doesn’t really make sense.

At any rate, some kids had departed—other kids had arrived—and Maury had a stronger principal. And as Mathews notes, Maury’s test scores did improve in the spring of 05—or at least, they seemed to improve (more to come). “Perhaps the best news was Maury's jump in English scores among third- and fifth-graders,” Mathews writes. (Those were the only two grades being tested.) “The percentage of children passing the test shot up from just over 50 percent [in 2004] to 92 percent [in 2005].” Good grief! On one year, the percentage of kids passing that test nearly doubled—and since “English” here actually means “Reading/Language Arts” (i.e., reading and writing—Virginia’s official school report cards are incoherent, barely penetrable) you’d be inclined to think that a 92 percent passing rate would be a sign of massive success. Tomorrow, we’ll try to figure out what Maury did to produce that impressive score gain. But for today, let’s just gaze in stupefaction at the Rube Goldberg procedures Maury had to endure in the summer of 2005—the improbable hurdles the school had to jump to get off the list of schools which “need improvement”—what Mathews calls the “federal bad list.”

Readers, 92 percent of Maury’s kids had (supposedly) passed the state’s reading test! But in matters like this, nothing comes easy. Bureaucrats comfy with kooky “demands” can also invent absurd procedures. Mathews begins to describe the odd process which finally got Maury released from what he calls the “federal bad list:”

MATHEWS: Monte E. Dawson, Alexandria schools' executive director for testing and evaluation, was the man in charge of Maury's battle to convince state education officials that Maury should come off the list. He described the process as a matter of judgment. It would, he said, be rather like sampling a new and supposedly improved wine.

"You are swirling the wine around," Dawson said. "The judge might say, 'I like the bouquet, but it tastes like dreck.' "

The answer would be far from simple. Before Maury could escape its failing designation, it would have to survive a sometimes bewildering statistical exercise, comparing its old scores with its new ones and past achievements of its poorest students with their new attainments.

Readers, would you have thought that rating a school under NCLB would be “a matter of judgment”—like sampling a new, improved wine? And by the way: Once 92 percent of a school’s students had passed the relevant reading test, would you think it would take “a sometimes bewildering statistical exercise” to get off the “needs improvement” list? We wouldn’t have thought so, either. But as Mathews continues, he helps us see the way state bureaucracies do sometimes function:
MATHEWS (continuing directly): Down to the state Department of Education in Richmond went dozens of pages of statistics, including the passing rates of Hispanic fifth-graders on math tests, the passing rates of disabled students on science tests and comparisons of Maury's results with state averages. Even the number of student fights had to be tallied.

Finally, school officials offered written arguments, like legal briefs, that beyond the bare numbers, Maury's improvements merited taking it off the federal bad list.

“Beyond the bare numbers?” According to the bare numbers Mathews cites, 92 percent of Maury’s students had passed the state’s Reading/Language Arts test! Meanwhile, to savor the absurdity of these procedures, consider the notion that Maurry submitted “legal briefs” about “the passing rates of Hispanic fifth-graders.” Say what? How many such students could Maury have had? According to the Alexandria Public Schools web site, only 13 percent of Maury kids are Hispanic—and in 2005, there were only 24 fifth-graders in the whole school! We’re now dealing with numbers that are vanishingly small; from the simplest statistical standpoint, the absurdity of this procedure is clear. Let’s say it again—Mathews is describing a Rube Goldberg scheme as Dawson battles the state DOE to get Maury off that “bad list.” Mathews, a reporter, is too disciplined to say so, but massive time and energy is being wasted as state flunkies sample their wine.

A grumbling skeptic would say something like this: This is the sort of nonsense we get when we’re willing to wink at irrational “demands” which lie at the heart of a major program. Or, if you’ve worked in a large school system, you might find yourself saying this: Once we let this nonsense get started, it simply never stops.

At any rate, after sniffing, swirling and sampling the wine, Richmond released Maury from the “federal bad list.” But what had Maury actually done to improve its test scores so much in one year? How had this low-income school reached the point where 92 percent of its kids were passing the state’s Reading/Language Arts test? Indeed, as we ask this question tomorrow, we’ll throw in one more question, just for good measure: Is it clear that Maury improved much at all? Tomorrow, we’ll take a closer look at Maury’s scores—and be puzzled by much that we find there.

DAWSON UP A CREEK (THE FULL MONTE): None of this is Dawson’s fault. But it’s worth seeing how foolish things can get when state education departments are allowed to start swirling and sampling that wine. Here’s another chunk of Mathews’ description of that absurd process:

MATHEWS: Dawson prepared a detailed chart that showed the average Maury scores on each test, 2005's compared with 2004's. He even used one of his favorite computer tools—the Data Disaggregator—to clarify each gain, no matter how slim. His analysis of the fifth-grade writing test showed that 22 of the 24 students tested had passed, albeit three of them by a hair. But the other 19 improved nicely.

The memo Dawson prepared, "Justification for the AYP [Adequate Yearly Progress] Determination," was a defense of the progress of just 43 students, the sum total of the school's remaining third- and fifth-graders, the only grades tested last spring.

Dawson sent the data and supporting memos to Richmond, and in mid-November, like a high school senior looking up his SAT score, he used his password to log on to the state's Web site.

Just as he had hoped, Maury had made Adequate Yearly Progress. The word spread quickly.

Remember—this process was used to evaluate a school where 92 percent of the students had supposedly passed the state reading test! How can we explain such nonsense? Tomorrow, the drama deepens—and the facts about Maury’s alleged improvement start to get a bit murky.