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Daily Howler: Fred Hiatt's column in today's Post raises an obvious question
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DOES FRED HIATT ACTUALLY CARE? Fred Hiatt’s column in today’s Post raises an obvious question: // link // print // previous // next //

WE’LL BE HOWLING WITH JAY, NOT AT HIM: Sorry! On Friday, we noted that the Post’s Jay Mathews had responded to our series on Maury Elementary—the public school in Alexandria, Virginia which was praised atop the Post’s front page as “a study in pride, progress” (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/6/06) But on Friday, we failed to include the link which took you to Mathews’ new report. Jay has spoken to Virginia education officials, and he tries to explain the anomalies we discussed in our original series. If you want to read his new report, you can, at long last, just click here.

But uh-oh! Tomorrow, we’ll start a week-long report on the things Jay says he has learned. In this series, we’ll be trying to howl with Jay, not at him; we share the old school system tie with the scribe, and for us, that tie runs deep. But for those of you who are reading ahead, Jay’s new report misstates the explanations we were given for Maury’s odd test scores—and we note that Jay clearly misstates the Virginia state policies which he directly quotes. Is Maury “a study in pride, progress,” as the Post’s front-page headline said? Or is Maury a school with extremely low scores—scores which actually declined last year? This week, we’ll review this puzzling case once again—and our confusion has only deepened as a result of Jay’s new report.

Why do we return to this topic? Because this topic matters. In fact, this topic matters quite a lot, for reasons we’ll explain as we go. It matters whether schools like Maury are recording good scores. It matters if Virginia’s reporting of such scores is fake or in some way inaccurate. It matters if No Child Left Behind is producing results (or not)—and it matters how the major papers like Post reports such important issues. The discussions we’ll post this week are important. These are the kinds of discussions which would occur, on a daily basis, in a world which actually cared about its low-income kids.

What’s the truth about Maury’s scores? We’ll begin to puzzle that out tomorrow. But one thing has apparently changed as a result of our original series; the state of Virginia has now taken down those absurdly flawed “school report cards” which we criticized. No, we never got the time to go back and review their astonishing flaws point by point. And we’ll never be able to do so now; just click here to see their absence. “Temporarily unavailable—thank you for your patience,” a posting at Virginia’s official web site now reads. Do you want to look up Maury’s scores? At present, Maury’s scores aren’t available. And neither are anyone else’s.

Maury is a very small school; few children are directly involved in this story. But this incident lets us explore a range of important topics. What is really going on in low-income schools? How are states running their test-and-report programs? And how does the progress of schools like Maury get reported in major newspapers? This story takes us many places we need to go—if we care about low-income kids, as some readers have sworn that they do. Mathews’ new report raises many major issues. We’re sure that these readers’ commitment to low-income children will keep them returning for more.

DOES FRED HIATT ACTUALLY CARE: Good Lord! In this morning’s Post, Fred Hiatt discusses a interview with DC superintendent Clifford Janey, who has just released his new “master plan” for the District’s public schools (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/3/06). Early on, Hiatt discusses the administrative chaos Janey found when he came to DC. “When he arrived 18 months ago, he found 10,000 problem checks—paychecks or legal judgments the system had neglected to pay, step increases that hadn't been calculated—each of which took hours to resolve,” Hiatt writes. Then, Hiatt records Janey’s reaction—and quotes a remarkable statement:

HIATT (3/6/06): It was all "much more of a mess" than he had expected, "beyond some of the broken indicators," Janey says, though presumably he knew how many superintendents had rotated through in the years preceding his arrival. The biggest surprise? "The way lying has reached an art form. They lie effortlessly. They just look you in the face and lie. I've come to accept that as standard.”
Say what? “Lying has reached an art form,” Janey says. “They just look you in the face and lie.” From context, it seems that Janey may be discussing his own school system’s lower administrators! But Hiatt, typing directly from Neptune, seems too distracted to care. He quotes Janey making a startling statement—and never says who Janey means. Who has been lying in Janey’s face—lying so often he accepts it as standard? There’s no way to tell from Hiatt’s report. It makes us wonder whether Hiatt even cares.

Does Fred Hiatt care about DC’s schools? In recent decades, big newspapers like the Post have sometimes made it seem that they don’t. And that’s the vibe we get today from Hiatt’s attempt to review Janey’s plan. As we noted last week, Janey’s new “plan” is most remarkable for what it doesn’t include; if one can trust the Post’s reporting, this master plan doesn’t say a word about what will change in the District’s elementary schools. How will first-graders be taught to read? Janey’s plan has nothing to say about that. As we noted, his plan will create new “elite” high schools. But it doesn’t seem to say a word about how he’ll create elite students.

But so what? Hiatt is there, as big scribes often are, to pander to Janey, then book. Here’s his take on the Janey plan—the plan which doesn’t say a word about how to teach reading to DC’s struggling children:

HIATT: The master plan released last week, intended to guide school reform in coming so comprehensive that it raises a question of which changes are Janey's priority—or whether any are. Janey responds that school reforms have foundered when they single out one aspect of the schools and expect the rest to fall into place—as in, if only we could fix the middle schools, or offer universal pre-K, or institute annual testing or ramp up after-school programs or ban social promotions.
To Hiatt, Janey’s plan “is so comprehensive” that it suggests that the super is doing too much! Later, Hiatt calls it an “ambitious reform plan”—and he closes with a stirring quotation. “It'll take more than a couple of years,” Janey tells Hiatt. “I'm not a four-year person. I think that our kids really deserve a once-and-for-all approach.” According to Janey, this is all that she wrote. There won’t be any stronger plans coming.

Good God! We’ll grant you this; most likely, Hiatt knows little about public education, and he probably doesn’t spend much time inside DC’s low-income schools. But Hiatt does know how to read—and a simple perusal of the Post’s report last week would show that Janey made no proposals for improving teaching in grade schools. But uh-oh! Hiatt has found a key hidden point. We mordantly chuckled as we read it:

HIATT: What might be among [Janey’s] most far-reaching reform proposals is barely hinted at, in two paragraphs on the 91st page of a 122-page report. There Janey holds out the possibility of giving more "flexibility and autonomy" to high-performing or improving schools. Other systems (most famously Edmonton's, in Canada) have found that this can work: Make the principal responsible for progress, then free the principal from the downtown bureaucracy. If the school can fix its own broken windows faster and more cheaply, let it. If it wants to hire an extra music teacher in place of a guidance counselor, go for it.
That’s what we most often find; we often find that administrators bury their most far-reaching proposals “in two paragraphs on the 91st page of a 122-page report.” By the way: If you think that Hiatt knows anything at all about the operation of the Edmonton schools, we’ll sell you a bridge from there to the new Plato Middle in St. John’s, Newfoundland. According to Hiatt, what is going to reform DC’s schools? Principals will be empowered “to hire an extra music teacher in place of a guidance counselor.” We’re fairly sure that this won’t suffice—and we’re hardly surprised that such sweeping proposals were found in those two buried paragraphs.

What would we have wanted to know about the way Janey will run DC’s schools? We would have asked questions like these: What happens to low-income DC kids on Day One of kindergarten? If they come to school lacking readiness skills, is that lack of skills assessed and addressed? Or are they pushed ahead through standard development arcs—through standard programs devised with reference to the skills that are typical in middle-class children? (The Center for American Progress: “Young low-income and minority children are more likely to start school without having gained important school readiness skills, such as recognizing letters and counting.”) What happens to kids on Day One of first grade? If they aren’t ready for standard reading instruction, do they get it pushed at them anyway? (As Gabriela got pushed into Algebra 1 before she was actually ready.) And what happens to kids in the fourth and fifth grades, kids who may be years below grade level? (The Center for American Progress: “By the fourth grade, low-income students read about three grade levels behind non-poor students.”) Are they given a range of textbooks and supplementary materials they can actually read and learn from? Or are they handed books they can’t read? Or perhaps, handed no books at all?

No, it isn’t fair to expect such questions from Hiatt. Presumably, he hasn’t spent much time in low-income schools and doesn’t know much about what goes on there. But presumably, he is a trained journalist—and anyone who read last week’s report could see that Janey’s master plan isn’t especially “comprehensive” at all. According to the Post’s reporting, the master plan doesn’t contain a word about the teaching of reading in elementary schools—but Hiatt rushed-to-gush all the same. Heckuva job, Janey! he seemed to enthuse, as big scribes have tended to do for decades. And as we read this, we couldn’t help asking: Does Fred Hiatt actually care about DC’s low-income schools?

LIBERAL BLOGGERS WILL POUNCE ON THIS ONE: At any rate, settle back and enjoy the fun! In recent years, Hiatt has become a favorite target of the nation’s liberal bloggers. You can bet that they will run-not-walk to lambaste this latest weak effort!

SMILE-A-WHILE! JANE RUNS THE RUBES: Do you enjoy being treated like fools? Jane Hamsher—the liberal who gave us Natural Born Killers—has just completed her latest contest, this one concerning Joe Klein’s vilest statements. Which of Joe’s outrageous statements prove that he’s a Republican tool? Hamsher worked it down to four. This was one of Klein’s troubling statements—part of his quintessential quartet:

“I've never seen George Bush lose a debate. He is a brilliant minimalist.”
Surely, Klein’s a Total Tool. And that was a statement which proved it!

Here at THE HOWLER, we’ve been batting Klein around since the days when bashing Joe Klein wasn’t cool. But we couldn’t help chuckling as the great Hamsher played her readers like complete clucking idiots. Klein’s statement comes from a column in Time; it appeared just before Bush and Kerry’s first debate. And uh-oh! Here we see the larger context from which that troubling statement was drawn:

KLEIN (9/27/04): As he rolled across Minnesota last Thursday, Bush told his crowds pretty much the same things he's been saying for months. Saddam was a threat. The world is a safer place now that he's in jail. We must attack the terrorists before they attack us. Freedom has the "transformational power" to make the world a better place. We're not conquerors; we're agents of freedom. As for the current situation, "There's a lot of violence in Iraq, I understand that," he said in Rochester, "but Iraq now has a strong Prime Minister, National Council, and elections are scheduled in January."

Except for the elections—which seem highly unlikely at this point—all of Bush's statements have the virtue of being either true, truish or unprovable. His argument is tight, concise and, so far, impregnable. It is also a clever distortion of reality. If the National Intelligence Estimate is accurate, we are facing a far more dangerous world than existed before the war. Many intelligence and military experts now believe that al-Qaeda has rebuilt its leadership structure and metastasized; that the U.S. military is overburdened and its leaders are likely to tell the next President that they lack the resources necessary to regain control in Iraq; that the U.S. government has lost the credibility to lead the world into action against future threats from, say, Iran or North Korea; that Iraq itself seems in danger of splitting into three chaotic regions, which—in the NIE's worst-case scenario—may lead to civil war.

And so there is only one significant question left in this presidential election year: Can John Kerry hold George Bush accountable for this mess? My guess is, probably not. The Republicans, with a strong assist from Kerry, have successfully painted the Democrat as a flip-flopping incompetent when it comes to national security. It will be hard for Kerry to change that impression. In fact, he has only one chance remaining, in the presidential debates.

And that won't be easy: I've never seen George Bush lose a debate. He is a brilliant minimalist. Kerry by contrast is all oratorical flab—although he did begin to show some signs of life last week in a solid speech to the National Guard convention, in which he blasted Bush's "fantasy of spin" about Iraq. It is a powerful fantasy, though. And it is easy to predict Bush's response to any Kerry criticism about Iraq: "My opponent is too pessimistic," the President will say. "See, what he doesn't understand is that the President of the United States has to stand firm. We can't show weakness. And we won't on my watch." Unless Kerry can come off with a succinct, and lethal, response to those vaporous but compelling platitudes, he will lose this election.

How big a Republican hack is Klein? If this is one of the top four examples, the answer is—not big at all! In this column, Klein took Kerry’s side on the merits, only questioning his ability to counter Bush’s disingenuous spinning and hold him accountable for “the mess” in Iraq. How big a shill was Klein this day? In this column, he called Bush’s standard pitch on Iraq “a clever distortion of reality.” It was “a fantasy,” constructed of “vaporous platitudes,” the outrageous Republican shill vilely said. But so what? To people like Hamsher (and her fellow rube-runners), that single cadged statement would be good enough—good enough for rubes like you, that is. Hamsher got the cattle running—then fed them her usual slimy remarks about the physical appearances of women she opposes. (For comparison to Dennis Hastert, click here. Click here for more ruminations on “ugly.”)

What does Hamsher think of you, that she thinks you seek such slimings? Meanwhile, here at THE HOWLER, we chuckled lowly at that troubling quote. Knowing that some might be missing the joke, we decided to give you the set-up. And yes, this sort of thing goes on all the time with Hamsher. All too often, we enjoy these low laughs.

SAY IT AIN’T SO: We decided to skip our promised Saturday post, worn out by some readers’ fragile reactions. But yes—the difference between “topped” and “breached” is plainly substantive and major. And yes—the hapless AP made its latest big blunder in its report about those Katrina tapes, in which it dumbly conflated the terms. And yes—it’s embarrassing when scribes like the Post’s Gene Robinson try to finesse this obvious error. (With the emphasis on “finesse”—note his slick and slippery phrasings.) And yes—one averts one’s gaze when Media Matters pimps the wholly irrelevant fact that “topping” was the cause of some “breaching.” But omigod! Now they’ve even got Krugman! We can no longer link you to Krugman’s great columns (his column today is very important). But last Friday, even Krugman fell—drawn to a “contradiction” that wasn’t real, but felt good all the same. “Many people have now seen the video of the briefing Mr. Bush received before Hurricane Katrina struck,” Krugman wrote. “Much has been made of the revelation that Mr. Bush was dishonest when he claimed, a few days later, that nobody anticipated the breach of the levees.” But nothing in that videotape contradicts the statement Krugman cites.

Do we liberals and Dems plan to play the fool too, as pseudo-cons have done for so long? Do we aspire to the soul of Sean Hannity? For many, the obvious answer is “yes.” But Professor! Professor Krugman! Not you!