Daily Howler logo
WHAT DO THOSE NUMBERS MEAN! Horrible numbers emerged from that poll. What do those numbers mean? // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 12, 2010

Shoveling is disruptive: With apologies, we’re dumping our series for this week. Shoveling has proven highly disruptive. It has knocked us off our normal trade routes. We expect to regroup next week.

We had planned to talk today about the staggering dumbness involved in the recent “it’s snowing so global warming can’t be real” nonsense. But there’s a great deal to say about that topic, and we’ve been too distracted to pull it together.

Next week, with our normal patterns restored, we will at least hope to comment on this New York Times news report on the subject. In its weakness of statement, we think it’s instructive. But then, here’s what Olbermann said on the subject this Tuesday night, during his “worst persons” segment:

OLBERMANN (2/9/10): The runner-up, Molly and Jimmy Rapert, daughter and son in law of Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, and also their four children. After the DC snowstorm, they happily built a big igloo at 3rd Street and Independence Avenue Southeast, with a big sign reading, “Al Gore’s new home” and “Honk if you heart global warming.” Well, obviously that’s funny during a storm that killed people.

But to the political statement, you do realize that it’s climate change, where when it’s supposed to get warm, it gets warm-er, and where it’s supposed to get cold, it gets cold-er. You got that, right? It isn’t a freakin’ weather forecast from Channel 4? Grandpa Inhofe is a cheesy politician and he doesn’t understand this complicated stuff, right?

We’re glad he remembered to blame all the kids! And since we just copy Republicans now, it was good to include the guilt trip part about people dying during the storm. But really? According to current climate change theory, “When it’s supposed to get warm, it gets warmer, and where it’s supposed to get cold, it gets colder?” If that were the theory, then how in the world would average global temperatures rise?

We thought of Vermin Supreme, the performance artist who runs for president in New Hampshire each time (click here). In 2000, Vermin ran on a simple platform: “It’s too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter.” But Vermin is staging a joke.

Olbermann was back Wednesday night, equipped with a clearer explanation. But our political culture is cosmically dumb, and this Drudge/Inhofe/Hannity-driven nonsense must be its dumbest manifestation. By the way, how weak was that New York Times report? This weak: On Wednesday evening’s Special Report, all three pundits batted the Inhofian nonsense away with more ease than the New York Times did. Of course, there’s a difference between a news report and a pundit statement—and Hannity has clowned on this topic each night this week. But even Tucker Carlson was able to say this on Special Report:

CARLSON (2/10/10): As Charles [Krauthammer] points out correctly, today's storm doesn't affect the science.

Krauthammer had already batted the bull-roar away: “[The snowstorm] has no effect one way are the other on the veracity of the science. There is no weather event in any one locality, even a string of weather events, that's going to have any effect on the truth or the falsity of global climate change.”

The following morning, the New York Times discussed the topic on tiptoes. The Times was more timid than Charles.

The dumbness of our political culture is truly a thing to behold—and it threatens the nation’s future. People like Hannity dumb us down hard. But deeply timid mainstream news orgs have also been part of the syndrome—and so, increasingly, are a few souls who parade all about on our side.

“The amount of cheating is staggering:” “The amount of cheating is staggering.” So says Ben Scafidi, director of the Center for an Educated Georgia.

“This is the biggest erasure problem I’ve ever seen.” So says Gregory Cizek, described as “a testing expert from the University of North Carolina who has studied cheating.”

Scafidi and Cizek are quoted in today’s New York Times, in a report which discusses apparent cheating on standardized tests in the Georgia public schools. Warning! The inquiry into this matter is just starting. It’s always possible to jump to conclusions about the size of a problem at the start of such a process. How much cheating has gone on in Georgia’s schools? At present, no one can say. But this is the way Shaila Dewan describes the apparent problem:

DEWAN (2/12/10): Georgia education officials ordered investigations on Thursday at 191 schools across the state where they had found evidence of tampering on answer sheets for the state's standardized achievement test.

The order came after an inquiry on cheating by the Governor's Office of Student Achievement raised red flags regarding one in five of Georgia's 1,857 public elementary and middle schools. A large proportion of the schools were in Atlanta.

The inquiry flagged any school that had an abnormal number of erasures on answer sheets where the answers were changed from wrong to right, suggesting deliberate interference by teachers, principals or other administrators.

Experts said it could become one of the largest cheating scandals in the era of widespread standardized testing.

Too many changes from wrong to right! This has been a well-known “red flag” in standardized testing for decades; we first described it on this site in 1999, though we’d been aware of the syndrome since maybe 1980 (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/13/99). But over the years, it has been impossible to get our nation’s editorial geniuses to come to terms with this sort of problem, as they thunder, recite, proclaim and posture about the need for more high-stakes testing. For ourselves, we strongly favor annual testing. But we also know that public school teachers and administrators will sometimes cheat on such tests—and that they’ll cheat their keisters off if the stakes get sufficiently high.

In fact, everyone has known this, for decades. Everyone except the geniuses who type our editorials and op-ed columns—the fancy folk who love to proclaim, with high-minded fervor, about things they know little about.

The state of Georgia deserves a lot of credit for conducting this investigation. (Repeat: It’s still unclear how much cheating may have occurred.) But we were struck by Dewan’s report, because we’ve shaken our heads in recent weeks as we’ve read reactions to several proposals for higher-stakes testing. One such proposal came from the Obama Admin. (It may be a perfectly OK proposal.) This is what Sam Dillon reported in the February 1 New York Times:

DILLON (2/1/10): The Obama administration is proposing a sweeping overhaul of President Bush’s signature education law, No Child Left Behind, and will call for broad changes in how schools are judged to be succeeding or failing, as well as for the elimination of the law's 2014 deadline for bringing every American child to academic proficiency.

[...]

Significantly, said those who have been briefed, the White House wants to change federal financing formulas so that a portion of the money is awarded based on academic progress, rather than by formulas that apportion money to districts according to their numbers of students, especially poor students. The well-worn formulas for distributing tens of billions of dollars in federal aid have, for decades, been a mainstay of the annual budgeting process in the nation's 14,000 school districts.

Under this proposal, the stakes in high-stakes testing would get a lot higher. Tens of billions of dollars would be dished according to test scores. To anyone whose head isn’t stuck up his keister, one outcome is obvious, absent safeguards: This would lead to more cheating! But even after all these decades, know-nothing editorial boards leaped into action, praising the brilliance of this high-minded idea. For example, this was the wonderfully groaning opening paragraph of the Times’ editorial:

NEW YORK TIMES EDITORIAL (2/5/10): Making ‘No Child’ Better

Like most ambitious federal reforms, the No Child Left Behind Education Act of 2002 will need to be revised, perhaps several times, before it reaches maximum effectiveness. Without formally announcing them, the Obama Administration has made clear that it wants changes in the law, which could be reauthorized this year. For starters, it would like more effective mechanisms for intervening in failing schools and ways to reward schools that make rapid improvements.

Groan. “Rapid improvement” is a wonderful thing. But rapid improvement on standardized test scores has long been a red flag—a possible warning signal! Here’s one more part of Dewan’s report about the Georgia schools:

DEWAN: One school that made the “severe concern” list was Kennedy Middle School in Atlanta, which has won praise for improving after more than five years of failing to meet federal student achievement standards.

In October, The Journal-Constitution identified 10 Atlanta schools that had an extraordinary gain in scores, including two that went from among the worst to among the best in a year. Officials at the district, which gives $2,000 cash bonuses to educators at schools that meet improvement goals, said they did not believe there had been cheating. All of those schools are now on the “severe concern” list.

These schools had made “an extraordinary gain in scores”—that is to say, they’d made “rapid improvements.” Anyone with an ounce of sense knows this can be a warning sign. But high-minded editors at our big papers have rarely shown signs of knowing such things. Over the decades, it has been stunning to see their studied resistance to grasping the ways of the world.

For those whose heads aren’t lodged up their keisters, it has been well-known for decades: If you pay teachers to get better test scores; if you fire teachers who get lower scores; if you tie funding and advancement to higher scores, then a whole lot of teachers and principals cheat. (They also cheat at the school system level.) But it has proven nearly impossible to get editorial boards and op-ed savants to understand such facts of life. They recite High-Minded Mantras about raising achievement. And they behave like a clueless elite.

As noted, we favor standardized testing. We’d be inclined to favor the use of test scores in rating teachers. But if you’re going to raise the stakes in testing that way, you have to institute strong “test security” measures. But so what? The know-nothing boards at the Post and the Times played their standard role this month. They clapped and cheered for “rapid improvement,” then wandered about the countryside like emperors shorn of their clothes.

Note again: The investigation in Georgia is just starting. The amount of cheating isn’t known. But kudos to the New York Times for reporting this story today. We await the day when some editorial board—or some op-ed giant—will stress the need for greater test security measures as they posture, in scripted ways, about the wonders of rapid improvement.

WHAT DO THOSE NUMBERS MEAN (permalink): In our view, Steve Benen put the best possible face on this week’s Washington Post/ABC News poll (click here). Steve looked at certain results concerning health reform—results we’d be inclined to disregard. “These results aren’t bad,” he said.

Steve was right. The results he cited weren’t all that bad, but the questions he looked at were a bit soft. (Respondents want Congress to keep trying!) For us, the rubber hit the road in the poll’s most basic question about health reform. It was question 15 (just click here):

WASHINGTON POST/ABC NEWS POLL: Overall, given what you know about them, would you say you support or oppose the proposed changes to the health care system being developed by Congress and the Obama administration? Do you feel that way strongly or somewhat?

We thought the result was awful. Overall, 46 percent favored proposed reform; 49 percent opposed it. But take a look at those who felt strongly. Only 22 percent were strongly in favor. A walloping 38 percent said they were strongly opposed.

That is just a horrible breakdown. It’s hard to imagine passing major legislation in the face of such public sentiment. We have no idea what’s going on inside the Admin and inside the Congress; we have no idea if they still plan to pass a bill. But if the House doesn’t want to pass the Senate bill, those numbers may help explain why.

In our view, those horrible numbers raise a challenge for liberals and progressives. It’s time for us to take a step back and ask ourselves an important question: Why are those numbers so bad?

Meanwhile, we’ll make some suggestions about what we should do in trying to answer that question. For the moment, we should stop entertaining and angering ourselves with claims about how had (how hypocritical) the other side is. For the moment, we should focus on ourselves. We should ask ourselves what is wrong with us—why our side couldn’t convince the public of the merits of the plan.

We know, we know: Sarah Palin said “death panels,” and Betsey McCaughey did her usual crap. But we’ve known about McCaughey since 1993, and there’s always a Palin around. In our view, it’s time to set aside our compalints about the other team, and ask ourselves what is wrong with our own. Why haven’t we done a better job convincing the American people?

The McCaugheys and the Palins will always be there. Why can’t our side win?

Here at THE HOWLER, we have our own ideas about such questions; we may discuss them next week. But as you ask yourselves that question, steel yourselves against the joys of talking about the other side. In that new poll, the numbers are very bad among those who feel strongly. Forgot for once about the others:

Why doesn’t our side win?