A MUCH-BELOVED, DECADES-OLD TALE! Journalists have loved Rhees miracle tale for at least the past forty-five years: // link // print // previous // next //
MONDAY, FEBRUARY 21, 2011
The liberal world has to do better, suffering Wisconsin edition: Paul Krugman discusses the big picture in this mornings column. Increasingly, we live in an oligarchy, Krugman correctly writes.
Public unions arent always right, he notes. But those unions are one of the few remaining checks on oligarchic influence.
To most citizens, this notion will be quite unfamiliar, though that isnt Krugmans fault. For the most part, the liberal world has made little effort to put such basic ideas in front of regular people. That said, please note something Krugman says today about the Wisconsin budget. These remarks fly in the face of many things we liberals were told all last week:
Say what? Wisconsin is facing a budget crunch? It does make sense to call for monetary concessions from state workers? In a long string of major forums, liberals were told exactly the opposite in the past week. Rachel Maddow certainly wasnt the biggest offender, but as usual she was more sure of herself than anyone else. Maddow voiced the standard misstatements at the start of last Thursdays show:
To see Politifact score these statements as flat-out False, go aheadjust click here.
In fairness, it isnt exactly Maddows fault that she misstated so baldlyalthough shes supposed to be the smart one. Last week, the whole liberal world was misstating basic facts about the Wisconsin budget. For our money, no one was quite as embarrassing as the hapless fact-free fumbler, Ed Schultz. But at least three major reliable liberals ended up retracting statements similar to Maddowsthough no one overstated the situation as wildly as she did.
Were glad Klein and Leonhard retracted and re-explained; we only wish that TPM and Benen would follow suit. Beyond that, wed like to see a full review of how these errors occurred. In an oligarchic world, progressives cant afford to be grossly wrong. Misstatements by power will be accepted and recited. Progressives wont get that deal.
In our view, progressives are largely fighting uphill in this evolving struggle. For decades, the oligarchs have spread their messaging about those greedy unions. Citizens have heard few countervailing frameworks from our own hapless side, in which the interests of working people are consigned to millionaire hirelings like Maddow. For example: No one has trashed public unions more than Michelle Rhee and her billionaire colleaguesbut Rhee has largely been given free rein by the corporate liberal world. Through years of union-trashing and public misstatement, Rhees name has never been mentioned on Maddows showand it never was mentioned on Countdown. It has never been mentioned on the Ed Show. Rhees name has been mentioned only once on Hardballwhen she appeared on the show last year, where she was heavily fawned over.
Even when NBC News staged a week-long wilding of public school teachers, none of these fiery career liberals spoke up. But when youre getting paid millions of bucks, you know when its time to shut up.
No one has trashed public unions more; no one has received more deference. Citizens have heard endless union-trashing. In response, theyve heard little from our own hapless side.
EPILOGUEA MUCH-BELOVED, DECADES-OLD TALE (permalink): Did Michelle Rhee engineer a miracle during her three-year teaching career? Did she take a bunch of deserving, low-income Baltimore kids from the bottom of the nation all the way to the top?
After two years of miracle teaching, did ninety percent of her low-scoring kids end up scoring at the 90th percentile or higher? Did Rhee thereby prove that low-income kids will score through the roof if their shitty teachers will get off their keisters and teach?
Everything remains semi-possible, even at this late date. But its very, very hard to believe that anything like that ever occurred during Rhees teaching career. But alas! Rhee has always claimed miracle deeds, climbing the ladder of fame and success on the backs of low-income third-graders. And credulous types in the national press have always been there to believe her.
The true believers have always believed; many will continue to do so. But uh-oh! Just within the past few weeks, a high-profile study from 1995 has come to wide public attentionand even Jay Mathews has renounced Rhees self-glorying tales. Whether for good or for ill, Jay tends to give the benefit of the doubt to glory claims by education reformers. But after reviewing that high-profile study, Jay offered this judgment about Rhees claims at his Washington Post web site:
In fact, the study Brandenburg brought to light had always been available. The Washington Times discussed the study, and noted its findings, when Rhee first arrived in DC (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/9/07); journalists at the Washington Post just didnt bother pursuing the matter. But on February 8, Mathews threw Rhees famous claims under the busand he repeated this judgment several more times as the week continued. Rhees ballyhooed test scores weren't nearly as good as she said they were, he now judged.
Werent nearly as good, Mathews said. The claims on which Rhee based her career werent even close to accurate. (Last night, at a Washington book event, Rhee sycophant Richard Whitmire made a similar admission, though we wont be able to give quotations until C-Span airs the event. Whitmires new book about Rhee, The Bee Eater, may be the most sycophantic text we have ever reviewed.)
Rhee's results weren't nearly as good as she has always said! But the data on which Mathews based this judgment were first reported four years ago. Why then have so many journalists, Jay included, seemed eager to suspend disbelief about Rhees ballyhooed claims?
The answer to that question takes us back many years. For whatever reason, journalists and other elites have always loved improbable claims about educational miracles in low-income schools.
For us, this story dates to Herbert Kohls influential 1967 book, 36 Children. In his widely-read book, Kohl described his experience as a new teacher in a large Harlem elementary school.
In his opening paragraphs, Kohl gave voice to the high ideals emerging in the liberal world as the civil rights revolution focused attention on the plight of deserving black children in our inner-city schools. Kohl described the start of his year as a sixth-grade teacher in Harlem:
Or not! In this, the fourth paragraph of his book, Kohl expressed the zeitgeist of a hopeful liberal era. The regular teachers were corruptingly wrong (i.e., the teachers who didnt go to Harvard with Kohl). According to Kohl, it was amazing to see how the dullest child can be transformed into one of the keenest and the brightest if a teacher simply ignored the previous judgments of those child-hating rubes.
In fairness, Kohl also said that the brightest child could turn out to be the most ordinary. In this, he conveyed another standard notion of the era: Bourgeois teachers loved the compliant children, who were in fact worthless and dull.
For what its worth, Kohl had been assigned the 6-1 class, the highest-achieving sixth-grade class in a very large New York City school. (From Kohls text, it is clear that there were at least seven sixth-grade classes in his school, perhaps as many as ten.) This fact should perhaps have been kept in mind as he described the vast success he achieved with his 36 children; they went on to write novels under his tutelage and to perform other miracle tasks. Kohls book helped establish an understandable but naïve belief, a belief which took hold in much of the liberal and mainstream worlds. Since black and white children are just alike, the only thing holding our black children back was the hatred, or the ineptitude, of their miserable teachers.
In some minds, a similar notion may have emerged from Jonathan Kozols brilliant Death at An Early Age, the 1967 book which chronicled Kozols year of teaching in a Boston elementary school. (Quite deservedly, Kozols book won the National Book Award.) Kozol never claimed that he achieved academic success with his struggling students, who were far behind traditional grade level; but his book focused heavily on the racial hatred directed at these deserving children by his fellow teachers. It was easy to think, from reading this book, that the deserving children Kozol described were suffering their academic struggles because of the racism they had experienced, every day, in their school.
Two years after Kozols book appeared, we ourselves began teaching a fifth-grade class in a Baltimore public school. But uh-oh! This was a Baltimore public school in which all the other teachers were black! Whatever explained the academic problems of the lovely kids in that public school, it wasnt the racism of their white teachers. No white teachers had been in this school.
(Historically, Baltimore had run a dual school system. As late as 1969, it wasnt unusual for elementary schools to have teaching staffs which were all, or almost all, black.)
Alas! This was a very hopeful time for elite folk who cared about black kids! The liberal and mainstream worlds still knew little about the actual challenges faced by inner-city schools. But all of a sudden, the brutal history of American racism had come front and center in American life; given that ugly history, it was easy to believe (with apologies for the language) that the dullest children could quickly be transformed into the keenest and brightest. White liberals insisted on that belief; often, they clung to this belief in the face of emerging knowledge. We first encountered this as a journalistic problem in (we think) 1972. This episode involved a well-intentioned but defiantly wrong-headed columnist at the Baltimore Sun. (For a quick review of these instructive events, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/8/05).
That was the early 1970s. But for whatever reasons, mainstream journalists have never stopped loving those miracle tales about low-income schools. They simply love to tell pleasing stories in which dull children are magically transformed into the keenest and brightest! By now, of course, we know much more about low-income children than we knew in the days of Kohls book; most simply put, we know that low-income kids and their middle-class peers really arent just alike. Presumably, theyre just alike on the day theyre bornbut they arent just alike by the time they hit school, or by the time they reach fourth grade. Weve often quoted this statement by a famed liberal think tank:
That last claim is a gross overstatement, of course; many low-income students are reading just fine in the fourth grade. But many low-income kids really are way behind when they hit the fourth grade; they really did start school without having gained important school readiness skills. Indeed, many low-income kids are way behind their middle-class peers by the time theyre three years old! In November 2006, Paul Tough offered an important report on this topic in the New York Times magazine. To read our three-part report on his piece, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/1/06.
Many deserving low-income kids are way behind their peers when theyre just three years old! This isnt the judgment of bourgeois teachers; this is the judgment of trained researchers who observe these beautiful kids in their homes, in the early years of their lives. In the heady days of the 1960s, liberals and mainstream journalists had no way to know such things. Those miracle tales of vast transformation may have seemed to make perfect sense.
Today, though, we know the world isnt that simple. Except when music-man hustlers like Rhee show up in the Washington schools.
Seven months after Toughs report, Chancellor Rhee arrived in DC, trailing her miracle claims behind herself-glorying claims which pimped her own greatness, disparaging everyone else. To anyone with an ounce of sense, her miracle claims were highly suspectand within weeks, the Washington Times reported the data from that 1995 study! On the basis of those same data, Mathews and the sycophant Whitmire have now thrown Rhees claims under the bus. But in real time, the press corps simply chose to ignore what the Times had reported.
For the next several years, mainstream journalists kept repeating Rhees claims as if they really made sense. Another music man, Wendy Kopp, paraded around the country side, adding an ugly class element to this ridiculous story. Kopps tale concerned the finer young peoplethe children from Princeton, or even Cornell. If only this finer class of young person could be sent into low-income schools, astonishing miracles could occur. Or so this music man claimed.
To see a shameless man fawn at Kopps upper-class feet, read our five-part review of that Charlie Rose interview. (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/16/08. In a rational world, PBS would have fired Rose the day after he conducted that session.)
The music men have always been with us; Rhee and Kopp are a pair of real beauts. Today, they have the power of a billionaire class behind them; theyre backed by the billionaires Bloomberg/Gates/Broad, while career climbers kiss this trios feet and recite their preferred talking-points These billionaires may be well-intentioned (or not), but they rarely show the slightest sign of knowing what theyre talking about. (In part, Whitmores sycophantic new book is funded by the Broad Foundation.)
Four years ago, Michelle Rhee paraded out onto the national stage, trailing a decades-old tale behind her. Today, her self-glorying tale has at last been renounced, by Mathews and Whitmire both. But a great deal of disinformation has been spread all around; ugly attitudes have been advanced. A great deal of damage had been done as the rubes and hacks of the mainstream world insist on believing a simple-minded, decades-old miracle tale.
This miracle tale does harm to children and to other good things. But its very good for the adults. It helped make Rhee a world-famous hackthe world-famous hack she now is.
Enjoy an eye-rolling embarrassment: As noted, the high-profile study which did Rhee in has always been available. The relevant findings concerning Rhees claims were reported in the Washington Times in June 2007; any journalist who wanted to review the full study could of course have done so. But no one at the Washington Post ever did until the study emerged on Guy Brandenburgs blog, earlier this month. To his credit, Mathews reviewed Brandenburgs work and voiced his own judgment about Rhees claimsbut not before asking Brandenburg to explain how he found the missing test score data from former D.C. schools chancellor's early years as a classroom teacher, something I did not think was possible.
It quickly emerged that Brandenburg had received the study from Ed Harris, a concerned DC education-watcher. And uh-oh! Another education-watcher, Jay Steele, had accessed the report in 2007! To Jays credit, he published each mans explanation of how he got the report.
Gaze on this post, and understand the ways of the modern press corps:
How did Harris unearth that report? He googled four relevant terms!
(For Steeles explanation, read the rest of Mathews post.)
In short, the report had always been sitting on-line, available to all who sought it. Even if it werent on-line, it would of course have been available to any journalist who tried to obtain it by more traditional means.
Four years later, Jay wanted to know how Harris and Steele could have unearthed such a document. To Jays credit, he reported what they told him, giving us our latest lesson in the way the press corps works.
Simple story! When Rhee arrived in DC, she was a made man among the nations billionaire elites. So was her long-term colleague, the nonsense-spouting Kopp. The rules of the game were thus quite clear, given the way the press corps works:
No one was going to challenge Rhees claims. No one would fact-check her nonsense.