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Daily Howler: On page one, the New York Times recycles a treasured old tale
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ANOTHER BIG FISH OUT OF WATER STORY! On page one, the New York Times recycles a treasured old tale: // link // print // previous // next //

THE GREATEST PRO BOWL TALE EVER TOLD: Starting this weekend, there’s no pro football on TV; we include the exhibition known as the Pro Bowl when we make that statement. If you’re wondering what to do with your time, why not turn to the greatest Pro Bowl film ever made–the superlative “girl power” classic, Blue Crush? In the 2002 film, the main character gets to smooch a bit with a quarterback who’s in the Aloha State for the Pro Bowl–and he’s almost as handsome and nice as Tom Brady! But mainly, you get a superb reinvention of an iconic old tale you’ve seen a million times–about men.

No, the surf footage won’t seem quite as spectacular on a small screen in your home. But so what? When he reviewed Blue Crush, the Post’s Michael O’Sullivan, to his vast credit, copped to both parts of its greatness:

O’SULLIVAN (8/16/02): With eye-boggling footage of 20-foot-tall waves closing around you like a fist–creating the much-sought-after "pipe" that surfers shoot through–"Blue Crush" does for watersports what IMAX's "To Fly" did for being airborne. It makes the vicarious visceral, taking you out of your cushioned seat and throwing you into the middle of a series of wall-high breakers that have the ability to snap your board–or your neck–on the coral reefs that line the ocean floor.

What makes this virtual-reality ride so special is that your guides are not some tattooed, muscle-bound surf rats in sun-bleached board shorts but a trio of cute young women. Despite the string bikinis, "Blue Crush" has a straight-faced story to tell, and formulaic though it may be, it's one of righteous girl power.

As he closed, O’Sullivan said the surf footage was “thrilling”–but he said the girl power was “thrilling” as well. (O’Sullivan: “Blue Crush is a clear-eyed portrait of the unique kind of power that women possess, a power that shows us that victory doesn't always mean vanquishing someone else.”) We said this: Damn! Good for him!

We love this movie; so did our fellow Baltimorean, Ann Hornaday, who wrote a second review in the Post. “That’s my sister–that’s my sister!” It’s our favorite line in the film.

It’s the greatest Pro Bowl tale ever told! After you watch it, just click here, and look in on poor David Shuster.

ANOTHER BIG FISH OUT OF WATER STORY: Why do public schools–especially low-income schools–need reliable annual testing? This front-page report in today’s New York Times helps provide an answer.

The report, by Elissa Gootman, is a type of feel-good report big urban newspapers love. Its story-line just never gets old: Energetic, caring new principal turns urban school around. “In Bronx School, Culture Shock, Then Revival,” the Times front-page headline says. On page 14, the inside headline replaces “revival” with “turnaround”–and we’re told that we can check on-line video to learn how the school was “reinvented.” Meanwhile, back on the front page, we see the typical photo–the principal smiling with a lucky student (not shown on-line). And in paragraph five, we start to learn how the principal, Shimon Waronker, turned Junior High School 22 around:

GOOTMAN (2/8/08): At a time when the Bloomberg administration has put principals at the center of its efforts to overhaul schools, making the search for great school leaders more pressing than ever, the tale of Mr. Waronker shows that sometimes, the most unlikely of candidates can produce surprising results.

Despite warnings from some in the school system that Mr. Waronker was a cultural mismatch for a predominantly minority school, he has outlasted his predecessors, and test scores have risen enough to earn J.H.S. 22 an A on its new school report card. The school, once on the city's list of the 12 most dangerous, has since been removed.

Attendance among the 670 students is above 93 percent, and some of the offerings seem positively elite, like a new French dual-language program, one of only three in the city.

It really sounds great–if you stay on page one. “[T]est scores have risen enough to earn J.H.S. 22 an A on its new school report card,” we’re told. But if you keep reading–if you jump to page 14–then uh-oh! You’re also told this:

GOOTMAN (continuing directly): ''It's an entirely different place,'' Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein said in a recent interview. ''If I could clone Shimon Waronker, I would do that immediately.''

Not everyone would.

Mr. Waronker has replaced half the school's teachers, and some of his fiercest critics are teachers who say he interprets healthy dissent as disloyalty and is more concerned with creating flashy new programs than with ensuring they survive. Critics note that the school is far from perfect; it is one of 32 in the city that the state lists as failing and at risk of closing. Even his critics, though, acknowledge the scope of his challenge.

Weird! If you read page one, the school gets an A. On page 14, it’s listed as failing–and it may have to be closed! (Note the language. In reports like this, when a school is listed as “failing,” this only means that “critics say” the school is “far from perfect.”)

In a rational world, you might expect a journalist to sort out the puzzle–the school which gets an A on page 1 is “listed as failing” on page 14. But this isn’t a rational world; this is the world of front-page, feel-good stories about low-income urban schools. These stories make upscale readers feel good–and they show the good heart of the sponsoring newspaper. Perhaps for those reasons, Gootman makes no further attempt to describe this school’s academic performance. For the rest of her 1700-word piece, it’s all fish-out-of-water, feel-good tales about the way this new Hasidic principal got his male students to read Jane Austen. And go to etiquette class.

If we sound cynical about this story, it’s because we’ve read it a thousand times, dating back to the early 1970s. Big newspapers love to recycle this tale, and they rarely look too hard at the kinds of data which may queer their story. (In February 2006, the Washington Post put a version of this smiley-face tale at the very top of its front page. The school in question turned out to have the second-lowest reading scores in the whole state of Virginia! See THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/20/06, with links to previous work.) Indeed, Gootman never bothers to say how a school which gets an A can also be a school which is “listed as failing.” And she makes no attempt to report the school’s test scores. We hear Joel Klein’s subjective views–but we get no objective data.

Why do public schools–especially low-income schools–need reliable annual testing? (Warning: A good deal of present-day testing is shaky, and it’s vastly over-stressed.) If the New York Times can write this piece about a school which does have scores, can you imagine the tales you’d read in a world with no test scores at all?

The kids in that school deserve the best. Today, you get exactly one sentence which warns you: Yo, Times! Not so fast!

PHILOSOPHER FRIDAYS: Is on sabbatical. This highly controversial feature returns next Friday. Subject: That “accessible style.”

Meanwhile, yet another “brush with greatness!” We learned this week that we enjoyed a glancing childhood “brush” with consciousness kingpin Daniel Dennett! Going back to the second grade! Never mind how we found out.

According to Wikipedia, Dennett once claimed he introduced the frisbee to the UK. As usual, we’re left with our doubts.