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Senator Conrad explained, two times. Macaque-like confusion obtained
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WHEN CONRAD EXPLAINED! Senator Conrad explained, two times. Macaque-like confusion obtained: // link // print // previous // next //

Standardized reporting: We never cease to be amazed by reporting about “educational standards.” Example: Sam Dillon’s front-page report in today’s New York Times. A similar front-page report appeared in yesterday’s Washington Post, written by Nick Anderson. (We can’t find a link to that piece.)

You know how major things don’t get explained? These reports provide basic examples.

Dillon’s report discusses the movement to create “a uniform set of academic standards” for the nation’s public schools. There’s nothing “wrong” with that idea; in some ways, it may be a good idea. But here’s the way the idea is described. As someone who spent a dozen years teaching in Baltimore’s public schools, we already don’t understand this:

DILLON (3/11/10): A panel of educators convened by the nation's governors and state school superintendents proposed a uniform set of academic standards on Wednesday, laying out their vision for what all the nation's public school children should learn in math and English, year by year, from kindergarten to high school graduation.

The new proposals could transform American education, replacing the patchwork of standards ranging from mediocre to world-class that have been written by local educators in every state.

But should all children really learn the same things, “year by year, from kindergarten to high school graduation?” Should all fifth graders be taught the same math lessons, for example? Should kids who still can’t do third-grade math be taught the fifth-grade math curriculum? How about fifth-graders for whom the fifth-grade math would be boring, because they’re already past that point? Should they be “taught” the fifth-grade math anyway? Would anyone think that made sense?

Should all eighth-graders be taught the same math? Aren’t a good number of our eighth-graders several years behind in math? Haven’t a lot of our eighth-graders already breezed through algebra? Should all those kids be taught the same lessons? As Dillon continues, he offers this, not unlike Anderson before him:

DILLON (continuing directly): Under the proposed standards for English, for example, fifth graders would be expected to explain the differences between drama and prose, and to identify elements of drama like characters, dialogue and stage directions. Seventh graders would study, among other math concepts, proportional relationships, operations with rational numbers and solutions for linear equations.

But should all seventh-graders really be taught “solutions for linear equations?” Does that include seventh-graders who can’t pass the fourth-grade math test? In our view, anyone who has spent ten minutes teaching in public schools might be puzzled by the premise which animates Dillon’s report (and Anderson’s). Yet reports like this never attempt to explain this conundrum. The “experts” quoted in these reports are never asked to explain.

In this report, Dillon also makes a standard set of conflations about what it means to “lower standards.” (Does it mean you changed your curriculum? Or does it mean you left the curriculum alone, but made your proficiency test a bit easier?) But he never addresses that one basic question: Are these “experts” really saying that all the kids in a certain grade should be taught the same math lessons? Should all kids be on the same page?

Presumably, nothing like that is being done anywhere in the country today. Can that really be what these experts are saying? Why does no one explain?

That said, we were also baffled by Dillon’s report in yesterday’s Times. That report concerned achievement rates in American schools, as compared to achievement rates in other nations. The headline: “Many Nations Passing U.S. In Education, Expert Says.”

As he started, Dillon painted a somewhat gloomy picture—a picture which may well be accurate:

DILLON (3/10/10): One of the world's foremost experts on comparing national school systems told lawmakers on Tuesday that many other countries were surpassing the United States in educational attainment, including Canada, where he said 15-year-old students were, on average, more than one school year ahead of American 15-year-olds.

America's education advantage, unrivaled in the years after World War II, is eroding quickly as a greater proportion of students in more and more countries graduate from high school and college and score higher on achievement tests than students in the United States, said Andreas Schleicher, a senior education official at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris, which helps coordinate policies for 30 of the world's richest countries.

According to Schleicher, many countries are “surpassing the United States in educational attainment.” As Dillon reports a bit later on, Schleicher “based many of his international comparisons on data from the O.E.C.D. Program for International Student Assessment, which tests students in scores of countries every three years in math, reading or science.”

Those may be perfectly decent tests. It may well be that kids in Canada, and in other nations, are outscoring American kids on those tests; it may well be that those higher scores reflect real differences in achievement. But assuming those differences are real, what might explain them? As usual, we quickly find ourselves getting handed this perfectly standardized pabulum:

DILLON: Mr. Schleicher based many of his international comparisons on data from the O.E.C.D. Program for International Student Assessment, which tests students in scores of countries every three years in math, reading or science.

He said Finland had the world's “best performing education system,” partly because of its highly effective way of recruiting, training and supporting teachers.

Just like that, we’re back to The Finland Station, where these reports often fly! But in what sense does Finland have the world’s “best performing education system?” Does this simply mean that Finland’s kids got the highest scores on the OECD tests? Dillon doesn’t explain—but he quickly offers a selective, partial explanation for Finland’s (undefined) high performance: Finland is the best performing system “partly because of its highly effective way of recruiting, training and supporting teachers.” (Note a key word: “partly.”) But: Could Finland possibly be best-performing because it’s a small, mono-cultural, middle-class nation? A nation with little poverty and little immigration—a nation with few “second language” kids? Put another way: How do middle-class American kids score on these tests, as compared to middle-class Finnish kids? Year after year, these scripted reports appear—but no one ever explains.

One last question from this report. What does “sagging” mean?

DILLON: The committee also heard from Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, the largest teachers' union; John Castellani, president of the Business Roundtable, a group that represents corporate executives; and Charles Butt, chief executive of a supermarket chain in Texas, who said employers there faced increasing difficulties in hiring qualified young workers.

The blame for America's sagging academic achievement does not lie solely with public schools, Mr. Butt said, but also with dysfunctional families and a culture that undervalues education. “Schools are inheriting an overentertained, distracted student,” he said.

Mildly comical note: In this passage, we learn what’s wrong with America’s schools from the CEO of a supermarket chain! That said, here’s the basic question raised by that unexplained highlighted phrase:

At the start of his report, Dillon said that other countries are moving past the US in educational achievement—that America’s “educational advantage is eroding.” To state the obvious, that wouldn’t necessarily mean that US achievement levels were dropping. Here, though, we are told that US academic achievement is “sagging.” Does that mean that American scores on these tests are actually dropping—getting lower as years go by? Dillon doesn’t explain. (As far as we know, US achievement rates have been rising on most major international and domestic tests.)

Like many others, Dillon tends to offer standardized reports about our success on standardized tests. But: Should all kids really be taught the same things year by year? Are US achievement rates really sagging? At the very top of American journalism, Dillon didn’t explain.

Just an opinion: In this graphic, Dillon provides some of the proposed academic standards. Just a thought: We feel sorry for kids who are taught in accord with those standards for teaching “literature.” Want to teach kids how to hate books, and the life of the mind? Here’s one possible way: Bore them to death with those frameworks!

Special report: A land where no one explains!

PART 3—WHEN CONRAD EXPLAINED (permalink): Not once, but twice in recent weeks, Senator Conrad did a very dumb thing—he offered a clear explanation of something! Predictably enough, his clear explanation left major journalists shrieking and scratching their heads, not unlike a gang of macaques exposed to their very first flash cubes.

Senator! Explanation isn’t done! A bit of bone-simple background:

As anyone keeping close track would know, Democrats plan to use the legislative process known as “reconciliation” to help pass health reform. But two weeks ago, on Face the Nation, Senator Conrad made a ghastly mistake—a mistake involving breach of protocol. With several million people watching (including Bob Schieffer), Senator Conrad tried to explain explained how that process would work:

CONRAD (2/28/10): Bob, can I just—on the question of reconciliation.

SCHIEFFER: Let Senator Conrad come in here.

Senator Conrad was playing with fire. For unknown reasons, he was planning to explain a bone-simple process to Schieffer! In modern journalism, this just isn’t done! Foolishly, though, he proceeded:

CONRAD (continuing directly): On the question of reconciliation, I've said all year, as chairman of the Budget Committee, reconciliation cannot be used to pass comprehensive health-care reform. It won't work. It won't work because it was never designed for that kind of significant legislation. It was designed for deficit reduction.

So let's be clear: On the major Medicare or health-care reform legislation, that can't move to reconciliation. The role for reconciliation would be very limited. It would be on side-car issues designed to improve what passed the Senate, and what would have to pass the House for health-care reform to move forward.

So using reconciliation would not be for the main package at all. It would be for certain side-car issues, like how much does the federal government put up to pay for the Medicaid expansion? What is done to improve the affordability of the package that's come out of the Senate but it would not be used.

For our money, Conrad’s explanation could have been clearer. He shouldn’t have used jargon like “side-car issues.” He should have avoided the murky term “comprehensive.” But his explanation was basically clear: Reconciliation wouldn’t be used to pass the full health reform bill; that full bill has already passed the Senate. Reconciliation would only be used to make minor adjustments to that package—minor adjustments designed to improve what the Senate has already passed. Just in case this wasn’t yet clear, Conrad explained it again:

CONRAD: Health-care reform, the major package, would not be done through reconciliation. That would be unreasonable. But that's not going to happen here.

The major package will not be passed through reconciliation! Conrad had now splained that twice.

By February 28, of course, any major professional newsman should already have known these basic things. Schieffer should have able to recite this in his sleep. But for some reason, Schieffer seemed perplexed by what Conrad said—a bit kerflubbled even. Something he’d seen on Meet the Press had left him with furrowed brow:

SCHIEFFER: Let me just throw this in, because I'm not sure the White House has the same understanding of this that you do, because the woman—Nancy DeParle, who is kind of in change of Medicare over there at the White House, I mean, in health care over there at the White House—said this morning on Meet the Press, she thought that an “up-or-down vote” would be the way to go on this. So obviously she's talking about trying to do it through reconciliation, Senator.

For our money, DeParle was a bit unclear in what she said on Meet the Press. But was she “obviously” talking about passing the whole health package through reconciliation? It’s hard to know why Scheiffer would think that—except for the rules of the tribe.

You see, big modern journalists have a key rule: They simply never explain anything. They spend their time memorizing silly scripts about personality-driven topics; they proceed to recite these silly scripts in all available settings. They rarely try to explain much of anything—and they tend to be deeply baffled when they see others do so.

That may explain what happened when Conrad explained this matter again.

Conrad’s second explanation appeared in the March 6 Washington Post. Doggone it! In a March 2 op-ed piece in the Post, Orrin Hatch had quoted Conrad from last year, when Conrad had said that reconciliation couldn’t be used to pass the full bill. Completely accidentally, Hatch thus gave readers the false impression that Conrad opposed the use of reconciliation now, even to pass minor adjustments to the full health bill (click here). Plainly, Hatch misled Post readers, as Fred Hiatt of course should have known before he published Hatch’s piece. But sure enough! In his own op-ed piece, Conrad was forced to offer rebuttal. The poor guy explained yet again!

CONRAD (3/6/10): The role for reconciliation

A lot of misinformation has been spread recently about the budget reconciliation process. As chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, I have the primary responsibility for budget-related matters in the Senate. So let me set the record straight.

Reconciliation is not being considered for passing comprehensive health-care reform. Major health-care reform legislation passed the Senate without reconciliation on Christmas Eve. If the House now passes that legislation, it can go immediately to President Obama's desk to be signed into law. What the president and others have suggested is that, after the House acts, reconciliation could then be used to pass a much smaller "fixer" bill to allow for modifications to the comprehensive bill that will have passed under regular order.

Once again, that could have been a tiny tad clearer. (Key advice: Lose “comprehensive.”) That said: In a rational world, no political journalist could possibly have been confused by what Conrad had written and said.

Sadly, this isn’t a rational world. This is a world in Mike Allen prances about, pretending to discuss major issues. In truth, Allen isn’t a political journalist. But he plays one on TV—and he was still deeply confused by what Complex Conrad had said!

Good God. Conrad had now explained twice. To anyone who had followed this issue, the whole matter was clear before he explained it. But over at Politico, Mike Allen was still confused. Macaques will never understand flash cubes—and Allen still didn’t get this:

ALLEN (3/6/10): When Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) made this confusing argument last week on “Face the Nation,” we weren’t sure he was being deliberately disingenuous. It was, in fact, spin. Now, he’s made the same case in a similarly obtuse WashPost op-ed, “Reconciliation is not an option for health-care reform.” Don’t misread it: It’s an Alice-in-Wonderland argument FOR the use of reconciliation as part of the recipe for getting comprehensive health reform to the president’s desk: “Reconciliation is not being considered for passing comprehensive health-care reform. … What the president and others have suggested is that, after the House acts, reconciliation could then be used to pass a much smaller ‘fixer’ bill to allow for modifications to the comprehensive bill that will have passed under regular order. … If the Senate bill can be further improved with changes made through a small ‘fixer’ reconciliation package, we should do so.”

Was that actually written in English? At any rate, in this otherwise spot-on post, Jonathan Chait was stunned by Allen’s obtuseness. We have no idea why. For the past decade, people like Allen have spent their time memorizing silly scripts about inane, inconsequential topics. (This has taken the place of what used to be “journalism.”) When such people actually have to explain some matter—or ingest explanation—they often fly into a rage. Macaque-like confusion obtains.

For the record, reconciliation is just one of the many central health care topics the press corps hasn’t really explained in the past year. And when the press corps doesn’t explain, we’re left with the statements of partisans. For ourselves, we’re still amazed by the rolling non-explanation of the health bill’s abortion provisions. We’re told that this could kill the whole bill. Has anyone yet explained?

Tomorrow, some final confusion.

TOMORROW: Have you seen it explained?