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Daily Howler: Those higher state standards could help some kids. But they can badly harm others
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THE UPSHOT OF HIGHER STANDARDS! Those higher state standards could help some kids. But they can badly harm others: // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, MARCH 13, 2009

Smarmiest mind in the world: We’ll postpone our full report till tomorrow so we can finish our earmark review. But what an embarrassing, smutty small mind our biggest “progressive” star has! One of last night’s teasers:

OLBERMANN (3/12/09): And in Worsts: Newt Gingrich with a remarkable suggestion about preventing teen pregnancy. Unfortunately, his solution is, in part, teen prostitution! Fasten your seat belts! You are watching Countdown on MSNBC!

“Fasten your seat belts! You’re watching Countdown!” As if we couldn’t tell.

No, Gingrich’s “solution” doesn’t involve teen prostitution. But Olbermann’s childish, smutty smut factor has been set on “high” this whole week. And the smarm spreads apace. On Wednesday, we found ourselves watching his progressive protege as she staged a dramatic reading of Kwame Kilpatrick’s smutty text messages. (“I am easily embarrassed as a person, and I thus cannot give you the salacious low-lights, the ‘Full Kwame’ as it were. But I can just give you the cleaned-up Rachel Maddow Show staff-approved version of 6,000 text messages of courtship.”) This followed an hour in which her mentor had reveled in all manner of such amusement, including repeated examination of Bristol Palin’s failed love life. (“And the shocker from Star magazine: Sarah Palin`s daughter splits from her fiancee! She is now officially an unwed mother!”)

Cute. But then, this fellow enjoys discussing prostitution and “hookers” in much the way an underfed bear enjoys a large slab of free meat.

Till tomorrow, we ask only this, and we speak to the gods as we do so: What did we humans ever do to deserve having “leaders” like this?

Baker’s coven: Along with his gruesome wife (former Post hack Susan Glasser), Peter Baker lives inside the clan. Yesterday morning, he took control of the New York Times’ reporting on the omnibus spending bill. And sure enough! Right there in his opening paragraph, those earmarks were the big stars again. And of course, he was dripping with snark:

BAKER (3/12/09): In the morning, President Obama stepped before cameras on Wednesday to call on Congress to impose new rules curbing pet spending projects. In the afternoon, he signed a $410 billion package jammed with pet spending projects, this time with no cameras to record the moment.

Perfect work from inside the coven! The bill was “jammed” with “pet projects,” he said, doing his best Shailagh Murray impression. And Baker knew that reporters must lead with implied claims of hypocrisy!

Eventually, Baker would give us some idea how “jammed” that bill really was. But first, he had to paint a picture of Very Rude Acts By A Dem:

BAKER: “The problem is not earmarks,” [Senator Daniel] Inouye said. “The problem is secrecy which led to abuses in the past.”

Even after adopting the rules, his House counterpart seemed unenthusiastic about the battle against earmarks. Approached by reporters in a Capitol corridor, Representative David R. Obey of Wisconsin, the House Appropriations Committee chairman, referred to his written statements and angrily dismissed questions.
“I am tired of talking about doughnut holes,” he said, noting that the vast bulk of the bill did not go to earmarks. “Let me know when you want to get back to substance.”

Then he retreated into his office and slammed the door behind him.

Never mind what Obey had said. The key focus was the angry way he stalked off and slammed that door! By now, we’d reached paragraph 12 of Baker’s piece. And he still hadn’t tried to explain how “jammed” that spending bill actually was.

In paragraph 14, he finally did so. According to Baker, the spending bill was so “jammed” with earmarks (sorry—“pet projects”) that they amounted to one percent of its total spending. (Or three percent—his report isn’t clear.) But you don’t get that fact until paragraph 14. In graf one, you got the novel.

The report came straight from Baker’s coven, where he and his gruesome helpmate dwell. To his credit, he mentioned no hookers. No smarmy e-mail got in the way of the story the lad had to tell.

THE UPSHOT OF HIGHER STANDARDS: Obama said some intriguing things in Tuesday’s education speech. Consider what he said about “early childhood initiatives,” which he called “the first pillar in reforming our schools.”

As we already knew, Obama is high on preschool. (Good!) “Studies show that children in these programs are more likely to score higher in reading and math, more likely to graduate from high school and attend college, more likely to hold a job, and more likely to earn more in that job,” he said. But even as he pledged more funding for Head Start and Early Head Start, he offered an excellent warning. Some such programs are no darn good, the gentleman wisely noted:

OBAMA (3/10/09): Even as we invest in early childhood education, let’s raise the bar for early learning programs that are falling short. Today, some children are enrolled in excellent programs. Some are enrolled in mediocre ones. And some are wasting away their most formative years.

Music to observant ears! Anyone who has spent time in low-income schools has probably seen deserving kids who may be “wasting away their years.” It’s good to see someone say this directly. Some early programs are good, he said. Therefore, he issued a challenge:

OBAMA: That is why I am issuing a challenge to our states. Develop a cutting-edge plan to raise the quality of your early learning programs. Show us how you’ll work to ensure that children are better prepared for success by the time they enter kindergarten. If you do, we will support you with an Early Learning Challenge Grant that I call on Congress to enact.

It’s refreshing to see someone say that some early childhood programs may not be good enough. But is the president’s education staff up to the challenge of judging such matters? We wondered about that as we looked through the second chunk of Obama’s speech—the part in which Obama called for higher, “world-class standards.”

As we noted yesterday, Obama wants the states to adopt higher, world-class standards. We’ll only say this: If you want to see low-income kids wasting years away, we’ll suggest that some of Obama’s prescriptions tilt us in that direction. In the passage which follows, Obama issued a highly familiar challenge. But does this really make sense?

OBAMA: Let’s challenge our states to adopt world-class standards that will bring our curriculums into the 21st century. Today’s system of fifty different sets of benchmarks for academic success means 4th grade readers in Mississippi are scoring nearly 70 points lower than students in Wyoming—and getting the same grade. Eight of our states are setting their standards so low that their students may end up on par with roughly the bottom forty percent of the world.

That is inexcusable, and that is why I am calling on states that are setting their standards far below where they ought to be to stop low-balling expectations for our kids. The solution to low test scores is not lower standards—it’s tougher, clearer standards.

If your state gets low test scores, you need “tougher [state] standards!” Your state standards are too “low.” Of course, this idea became standard decades ago, at the dawn of the ballyhooed “standards revolution.” But, in many ways (not all), this familiar idea makes no earthly sense. In many ways, this familiar idea is bad news for low-income kids.

Does Obama’s framework really make sense? Let’s return to Mississippi, a state with low reading scores—on average, that is.

Should Mississippi, with its low reading scores, adopt a set of “tougher standards?” That might be good for some kids in the state; for others, it could prove harmful. It sounds good to talk about higher standards. But in the real world (of fifth-graders, let’s say), how would such high standards work?

The real world of real fifth-graders: It always sounds good to talk about setting higher, “world-class” standards. But think about the world of fifth-graders right here in our own state of Maryland. Uh-oh! Here’s a very basic fact: There’s a wide array of achievement levels among this state’s fifth-grade students. No matter where you set your “standards,” they will inevitably be irrelevant to a wide range of these kids.

Within fifteen miles of our sprawling campus, you could find plenty of fifth-grade kids who are working well above traditional “grade level” in reading and/or math. And you could find a lot of fifth-graders who are years below grade level.

Sorry. There’s no single place you can set your “state standards” such that those standards will be relevant to all. Example:

Let’s say some state has set its fifth-grade standards at a traditional fifth-grade level. To pass the state’s math test in the spring, a fifth-grader has to show she can do pretty well with traditional fifth-grade math.

For some fifth-graders, that standard would be much too easy to serve as any sort of goad. They would be working beyond that level on the very first day of the school year!

But, for many struggling fifth-graders, that standard would essentially be unattainable within that fifth-grade year. Our question: How would this second group of kids be served by raising the state’s fifth-grade standards—to traditional sixth-grade level, let’s say? Presumably, the state of Mississippi has lots of fifth-graders who are working at such lower levels. How would these kids’ interests be served if Mississippi adopted tougher, “world-class” fifth-grade standards?

People who haven’t spent time in low-income schools often have a mistaken notion: They imagine that all kids in a certain grade are more or less alike. But they aren’t—not even close! Some fifth-graders are light-years ahead of others; those higher-achieving kids should be taught at the highest level they can manage. But it’s crazy to think that kids who may be years behind them should be taught the same material—should be “held to the same world-class standard.”

You can make them try to do it. But they’ll cry—their tears will be real tears. And they, and your dreams, will all fail.

Could raising standards ever help? Presumably. Let’s consider something Obama said in that part of his speech.

In the passage which follows, Obama begins describing the need for those “world-class standards.” The intentions here are notably lofty. But again, we’re forced to say it: As with almost all major pols, it sounds like Obama has spent little time inside low-income schools:

OBAMA: Second, we will end what has become a race to the bottom in our schools and instead spur a race to the top by encouraging better standards and assessments. This is an area where we are being outpaced by other nations. It’s not that their kids are any smarter than ours—it’s that they are being smarter about how to educate their kids. They are spending less time teaching things that don’t matter, and more time teaching things that do. They are preparing their students not only for high school or college, but for a career. We are not. Our curriculum for eighth-graders is two full years behind top-performing countries. That is a prescription for economic decline. I refuse to accept that America’s children cannot rise to this challenge. They can, they must, and they will meet higher standards in our time.

“Our curriculum for eighth-graders is two full years behind top-performing countries,” Obama said. But this suggests a strange idea; it suggests that just one “curriculum” is being taught in all our eighth-grade classrooms! In fact, some eighth-graders are taking advanced math—Algebra 1 or beyond. And some eighth-graders are working on third-grade level, and struggling hard with that. Do you really want those two groups of kids to take the same eighth-grade “curriculum?” Obama speaks as if all eighth-grade kids are the same. Sorry, rubes: They’re not!

What did Obama mean when he said “our curriculum for eighth-graders” is “two full years behind top-performing countries?” Presumably, this means that successful eighth-graders in some countries (presumably, in the Asian tigers) are being taught much harder material than our own top eighth-graders typically are. If that’s true, this suggests we could probably move our own top kids along faster. But if Obama wants to bump our curriculum up by two years, what do we do with the good, decent kids who can’t handle the curriculum we already have? Those kids aren’t falling behind to get your goat; to make you mad; to rain on your very lofty parade. They are good decent kids who are doing their best—although they’re caught up in the (ongoing) tragedy of our brutal history.

You can’t make that tragedy stop because you don’t want to observe its effects.

Sorry, people. We can’t simply snap our fingers and command all kids to meet our high standards. Because we come up with some lofty ideas, we can’t simply invent a world in which all our eighth-grade kids can be asked to succeed with some single, lofty curriculum. And if you force your standards upon these kids, you can do many kids a great deal of harm. Imaginably, some of our highest-achieving kids could be helped by a “tougher curriculum.” But many kids can be badly harmed. Let’s recall what happened to Gabriela Ocampo when her city—The City of Angels—acted on lofty ideas.

Farewell, Gabriela: Huzzah! A gang of know-nothings in a far city had acted on some lofty ideas! They fell in line with the “standards revolution,” adopting city-wide “higher standards.” They did this because they lacked the first clue about the lives of low-income kids. During Jim Crow, our elites ignored the lives of these children. The “standards revolution” has given us ways to ignore them all over again.

In the Los Angeles Times, Duke Helfand did a remarkable piece of education reporting, describing what happened to struggling kids when that city’s lofty elites adopted those higher standards. His piece centered on Ocampo, who had recently become a high school drop-out. Incredibly, Ocampo had dropped out midway through twelfth grade—because she couldn’t pass her high school’s first-year algebra course. And there’s no doubt she couldn’t pass this course. By the time she finally quit, she had taken—and failed—the course six times! In this passage, you get a sense of the kind of gong-show Obama has now recommended. You get a sense of the decent kidsd who get steam-rolled by such high ideals:

HELFAND (1/30/06): Gabriela failed that first semester of freshman algebra. She failed again and again—six times in six semesters. And because students in Los Angeles Unified schools must pass algebra to graduate, her hopes for a diploma grew dimmer with each F.

Midway through 12th grade, Gabriela gathered her textbooks, dropped them at the campus book room and, without telling a soul, vanished from Birmingham High School.

We did a six-part report on Helfand’s superlative piece; see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/2/06. “Liberals,” who quit on such kids long ago, predictably stared into air. (Question: How much discussion of Obama’s speech have you seen at our “liberal journals?”)

Imaginably, those “higher standards” can help some kids—but they can badly harm many others. Who wouldn’t have known that LA’s “higher standards” would damage decent, good kids like Ocampo? Duh! Our lofty elites wouldn’t know! These lofty elites have little idea about the real lives of these crummy children. This week, Obama was pimping one of this group’s lofty, know-nothing cries.

Coming Monday: David Brooks doesn’t know several things. (Click here.) He does say some things which are useful.