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Print view: A sacred tale helps fuel ''reform.'' But is that story accurate?
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MICHELLE RHEE’S SACRED STORY! A sacred tale helps fuel “reform.” But is that story accurate? // link // print // previous // next //
TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 15, 2011

Only in America, or no real surprise: No, it doesn’t exactly matter. (The next two posts really do.) But on the front page of yesterday’s New York Times, Marc Lacey reported the highlighted tidbit about Gabrielle Giffords’ recovery:

LACEY (2/14/11): Representative Gabrielle Giffords, an eloquent speaker before she was shot in the head last month, is relearning the skill—progressing from mouthing words and lip-syncing songs to talking briefly by telephone to her brother-in-law in space.

With a group of friends and family members acting as a backup chorus, Ms. Giffords has been mouthing the lyrics to “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” and “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love, Baby.” And as a surprise for her husband, who is celebrating his birthday this month, a longtime friend who has been helping her through her rehabilitation videotaped her mouthing the words to “Happy Birthday to You.”

You can pretty much kiss that “surprise” good-bye, if that passage means what it seems to say. But then again, what does that passage say and imply? It’s rather hard to make out.

According to Wikipedia, Mark Kelly’s birthday is next Monday. It hasn’t happened yet.

No, it doesn’t really matter—and there’s no way to tell if surprises were blown. But is any other elite quite as strange, or incoherent, as the gang at the New York Times?

The ten percent solution, or do you understand the budget: We’ll admit it! We were puzzled by Jackie Calmes’ report, in today’s New York Times, about Obama’s budget proposal. By the same newspaper’s lead editorial, in which they discuss the same topic.

(For the record, we’re inclined to list Calmes as one of the bright, sane ones.)

Reading both pieces, we were puzzled by the ease with which Obama has apparently addressed the problem of crippling future deficits.

Why were we puzzled? For the moment, set aside your views about the specific spending cuts Obama has proposed. Instead, focus on the amount of deficit reduction involved in his budget proposal. In this early passage from Calmes’ report, we were struck by the modest amount of reduction Obama has proposed—especially as compared with our current massive deficit:

CALMES (2/15/11): With this year’s deficit projected to hit a record, $1.6 trillion, [Obama] laid out a path for bringing down annual deficits to more sustainable levels over the rest of the decade.

Republicans said it was not nearly enough to address chronic fiscal imbalances and reduce the role of the federal government in the economy and society.

[…]

Nonetheless, with his budget, Mr. Obama was pivoting from the emphasis in his first two years on costly efforts to revive the economy. He said his plan would reduce the total projected deficits over the next decade by $1.1 trillion, or about 10 percent.

His budget, for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1, would cut spending for an array of domestic programs, including community services and environmental protection, and reduce the Pentagon’s previously proposed budget by $78 billion over five years.

For the moment, focus on the size of the deficit reduction, not on the specific spending Obama wants to cut.

As everyone knows, we’ve all heard widespread screaming and yelling about the disaster which looms in those future deficits. But how strange! According to Calmes, Obama is only reducing projected deficits “by about ten percent”—and yet, this would “bring down annual deficits to more sustainable levels over the rest of the decade.”

Let’s be clear: According to Calmes, Obama is reducing future deficits by ten percent, not future spending. We thought it odd that such modest reductions could address our looming disaster. But the editors seem even more sanguine today, offering this as they start:

NEW YORK TIMES EDITORIAL (2/15/11): On paper, President Obama’s new $3.7 trillion budget is encouraging. It makes a number of tough choices to cut the deficit by a projected $1.1 trillion over 10 years, which is enough to prevent an uncontrolled explosion of debt in the next decade and, as a result, reduce the risk of a fiscal crisis.

How weird! According to the editors, current budget projections involve “an uncontrolled explosion of debt.” But so what? Cutting those deficits by a mere ten percent—by a mere $100 billion per year—will somehow “prevent” such a crisis! We were even more perplexed when we looked at the first graph below. The graph, which accompanies Calmes’ report, shows where future deficits go under Obama’s proposal.

According to that graph, deficits will be back around three percent of GDP by the second half of the decade. That level of deficit spending is routinely described as “sustainable.”

Question: Why are we in a tizzy about future deficits if they can be controlled so easily? If reducing them by a modest amount gets things back to “sustainable” levels? According to Calmes, Obama’s proposal only reduces future deficits by “about ten percent.” And yet, presto! Just like that, those future deficits seem to fall into line!

To us, this would suggest that we don’t face a terrible deficit problem in the next ten years. So why do we hear all the screaming and yelling? Do you understand how this works?

Our guess: That chart is accurate, but highly misleading, in a very familiar way. But do you understand how this fandango works? Could you explain this material? We’re quoting from our nation’s most important newspaper, after all. Do you understand these reports?

Do you understand this odd situation? More on this topic tomorrow, with a nod to this post by Kevin Drum, even after its modest revision.

From Kevin, via us via Jay via Loveless: Kevin notes those international test scores from 1964 (click here). If you care about public schools, it’s important to know such things.

One more important note: Our international performance has held its own, or has improved, even as changing student demographics have made the challenges tougher in our public schools. When corporate hacks insist that our teachers have failed, you ought to remember such things. Yes, these things actually matter.

Special report: Michelle Rhee’s sacred story!

PART 1—THE SHAPE OF A SACRED STORY (permalink): Down through all these glorious years, has Michelle Rhee been making accurate claims about her brilliant teaching career?

Rhee became chancellor of the DC public schools in June 2007. Late last year, she left this post. But she remains a darling of the elites who favor a type of “education reform.” Rhee “is only 41, with plenty of energy and ambition,” Jay Mathews writes in this recent post. “Few others are likely to have as much influence over where our public schools go from here.”

We would assume that Jay is right. That makes her story significant.

Rhee’s career, and her ongoing ministry, have been built around a sacred story—a story of the vast success she says she achieved as a Baltimore teacher in the mid-1990s. But has she been making accurate claims about her brilliant career? This question returned with a vengeance last week, eventually reaching the front page of the Washington Post’s Metro section. (“Scrutiny of Rhee is renewed.” Just click here.) The discussion was built around new information which has been gleaned from an old study—a study which appeared in 1995, a study which was reviewed and ignored by Washington’s journalistic organs back in 2007.

So how about it? Based upon the things we now know, has Rhee been making accurate claims about her own brilliant career? In one major way, it doesn’t much matter. But if you care about educational policy, the truth of this matter is highly important.

The same is true of you want to understand the way powerful elites—including powerful journalistic elites—make a sick joke of your lives. If you want to understand the level of disregard these organs bring to their coverage of the interests of America’s low-income children

Let’s start with Michelle Rhee’s sacred story—the story which was widely recited when she arrived in Washington.

In June 2007, mayor-elect Adrian Fenty nominated Rhee to run the DC public schools. (Due to her youth and her lack of conventional experience, this was regarded as an unusual choice.) Late that month, the Washington Post’s Nikita Stewart described Rhee’s long-standing sacred story, while noting her inability to document her claims. Stewart’s report appeared on page two of the Post’s Metro section. Stewart described a problem the Washington Times had been reporting for the previous two days:

STEWART (6/30/07): The D.C. Council will question acting D.C. schools chancellor Michelle A. Rhee next week about claims in her résumé that she improved students' test scores when she taught in Baltimore a decade ago, council members said yesterday.

Although Rhee acknowledges that she has no documentation to prove the dramatic changes, three educators who worked closest with her at a Baltimore elementary school support her position that her students experienced big increases in standardized test scores.

[…]

Rhee's résumé asserts that the students made a dramatic gain: "Over a two-year period, moved students scoring on average at the 13th percentile on national standardized tests to 90 percent of students scoring at the 90th percentile or higher."

"When people say, ‘Do you have documentation?’, I've been saying no," Rhee said yesterday. "I think this is an important thing going forward for teachers to have documents to say, 'This is what the data look like.' My lesson is: How do we set up a system so teachers can have this kind of information on their students?"

Remarkable! For years, Rhee had been climbing the corporate-supported ladder in Manhattan, in part on the strength of a pleasing story about her own brilliant career. According to Rhee’s self-glorying tale, she had produced amazing academic gains among a group of low-income black kids in Baltimore—academic gains which she had described in highly precise detail.

For three years in the mid-1990s, Rhee had been a classroom teacher at Baltimore’s Harlem Park Elementary, one of the poorest, lowest-scoring schools in the Baltimore public school system. But if you were willing to believe Michelle Rhee, Michelle Rhee had slain a passel of educational dragons while at Harlem Park. Later in his report, Stewart filled in the basic details about Rhee’s short, but brilliant, teaching career. What follows is the sacred story which has defined Rhee’s career—and the very aggressive “reform” ministry which she continues to push:

STEWART: From 1992 to 1995, Rhee taught at Baltimore's Harlem Park Elementary, one of the worst-performing schools in the city and among nine schools run by a private company, Education Alternatives. During her first year there, she taught second grade. In her final two years there, she received approval to teach the same group of students in second and third grades.

In an interview, Rhee said the improved scores were seen in a comparison of results on the California Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills, which students took at the end of first grade before she had them and at the end of third grade. She could not produce data to support the statement.

Harlem Park's school-level standardized test scores, although not proving or disproving Rhee's assertions, show significant gains collectively among all three second-grade classes in 1993-94 and the three third-grade classes in 1994-95, the years she taught those grades. Three people who worked closely with her at the school and a student say the scores rose in the range Rhee suggested.

Rhee taught second grade in her first year, the 1992-1993 school year. In the fall of 1993, she began teaching a new group of second graders—a group she would teach for the next two years, in their second and third grade years. It was with this group that Rhee has said that she performed her educational miracle. On average, these children tested at the thirteenth percentile when they finished their first grade year, Rhee has said. But so what? After two years of work with the glorious Rhee, ninety percent of these low-income students were “scoring at the 90th percentile or higher.”

Or so Rhee had always said.

Had Rhee been making accurate claims about those children down through the years? About her own manifest brilliance? About the laziness of other teachers who didn’t and don’t create such outcomes? In one way, it doesn’t exactly matter. In the present day, Michelle Rhee is offering ideas for “reform” which should stand or fall on their own merits. (For ourselves, we would tend to agree with some of Rhee’s ideas and approaches.) Other people offer these same ideas—including many people who have never taught in low-income schools at all.

If Rhee is offering good ideas, her record as a classroom teacher doesn’t exactly matter.

But in several other ways, the truth of Rhee’s sacred story matters a great deal. Some of Rhee’s basic “reform” proposals turn on a very basic idea, an idea which she has endlessly stated, often in ways which are quite harsh. According to Rhee, her experience in Baltimore shows that amazing gains can be achieved in low-income schools if teachers will simply work hard enough. Gullible, high-income rubes in Manhattan have been buying this highly unlikely idea at least since the mid-1960s. This unlikely idea predates Rhee. But in the past decade, it has formed the backbone for a set of “reform” proposals being pushed by powerful interests.

Is Michelle Rhee’s sacred story accurate? Did she really achieve that amazing success? Last Tuesday, the Washington Post’s Jay Mathews threw in the towel on Rhee’s famous claims—and Mathews is one of the nation’s highest-ranking education reporters.

Rhee’s claims have been shown to be false, Mathews said. Jay may have spoken a bit prematurely—but behind all this, there lies a long tale. This long, ugly tale will matter a lot if you care about low-income children.

In the current pseudo-liberal world, very few people do.

Tomorrow—part 2: About that report