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Print view: Full of advice and trailing a conflict, a lofty Parisian bureaucrat is on his way to the states
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ANDREAS THE GIANT! Full of advice and trailing a conflict, a lofty Parisian bureaucrat is on his way to the states: // link // print // previous // next //
WEDNESDAY, MARCH 16, 2011

Liberal blogger gone wild: Yesterday, Kevin Drum made a crazy statement.

In a truly outrageous post, he discussed last year’s decline in cable news viewership. Why might cable news be down? In the course of a semi-explanation, one of our favorites went wild:

DRUM (3/15/11): I don't really know what to make of this, but in a weird way I blame MSNBC. For a while, Fox was sui generis, and their viewers basked in the idea that they were part of an exclusive fraternity of insurgents fighting the liberal media monolith. Then MSNBC became the Fox of the left, and suddenly the liberal monolith was unmasked as.....Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann. Once prime time explicitly became just a battle of Team Right versus Team Left and Team Nothing, that made all the blowhardery just a little less special than it used to be in the good old days.

People, can Kevin Drum say that?

For ourselves, we wouldn’t call MSNBC “the Fox of the left.” We would say that MSNBC is rapidly adopting the strategies and tactics of Fox, while engaging in occasional conduct that looks a bit like lying. And yes, MSNBC is driven by “blowhardery” too! Indeed, some of Kevin’s commenters showed how effective this approach can be; they flew into action, reciting the various points which have been designed to reject such claims of moral equivalence. (Inevitable: “Fox News broadcasts misleading right wing propaganda, and MSNBC tries to set the record straight.”) That said, let’s note one of the Fox-y ways MSNBC can dumb us all down. This takes us to a report by Ed Schultz on Monday night.

To Schultz’s credit, he didn’t throw Wisconsin under the bus just because of events in Japan. On Monday, he focused on Japan, but he also presented two reports on Wisconsin. (By way of contrast, the word “Wisconsin” wasn’t heard on Maddow, O’Donnell or Hardball. The shut-out continued last night.) But to close Monday’s program, Schultz did a report which kept us slightly barefoot and clueless. He returned to a much-repeated statement Obama made as a candidate:

SCHULTZ (3/14/11): Finally tonight on the Ed Show, this just in: President Obama’s advisers are telling him that he needs to reconnect with the people that got him elected. You think? He is missing a golden opportunity here to do just that with the people in Wisconsin, to stand with those wage earners…

This is what he said as a candidate.

OBAMA (videotape): If American workers are being denied their right to organize and collectively bargain when I’m in the White House, I’ll put on a comfortable pair of shoes myself. I’ll walk on that picket line with you as president of the United States of America, because workers deserve to know that somebody is standing in their corner.

SCHULTZ: Well, we’re at that point! The executive director of the National Nurses United, Rose Ann DeMoro, has offered to buy the president that comfortable pair of shoes. Even recent requests from union leaders and from the vice president of labor secretary to come to Wisconsin—they have been rebuffed. They’ve asked him to show up and he hasn’t.

Schultz called in Laura Flanders of Grit TV. They spent the segment wondering why Obama hasn’t gone to Wisconsin.

Why hasn’t Obama walked that line? Here at THE HOWLER, we have no idea. But if you watch Fox, you’ve repeatedly been given a reason—and you’ve learned some basic facts in the process. Under current cable arrangements, these are the types of facts we liberals aren’t permitted to know.

Which facts do they get to hear on Fox? Three weeks ago, Bill O’Reilly played that same tape of Candidate Obama pledging to walk the picket line. But good lord! In what follows, Mr. O offered “a good reason” for Obama’s failure to act:

O’REILLY (2/25/11): So far President Obama has not fulfilled that promise. He is staying out of the Wisconsin brawl and there is a good reason for that.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Kimberly Strassel nails it. Quote, "President Obama is the boss of a civil work force that numbers up two million. Those federal workers cannot bargain for wages or benefits. In 1978, Democratic President Jimmy Carter backed by a Democratic Congress passed the Civil Service Reform Act. It severely prescribes the issues over which employees could bargain as well as prohibited compulsory union support", unquote.

So federal workers don't have the union rights that Wisconsin workers have; the only thing the federal union can do is negotiate personnel matters. That's why President Obama can't go to Wisconsin. His guys don't have many union rights thanks to President Carter and Mr. Obama has not advocated for any change.

Is that why Obama hasn’t gone to Wisconsin? We have no idea. But the explanation does make some sense—and some actual facts were included in O’Reilly’s report.

To this day, most viewers of MSNBC haven’t heard those facts.

If you watch Fox, you’ve heard that explanation again and again. In the process, you’ve learned a basic fact—federal employees don’t have collective bargaining rights! For ourselves, we still weren’t entirely sure about that; we had never heard it on MSNBC, after all. So yesterday, we did some googling—and we quickly found Ezra Klein confirming this fact, way back on February 23. Klein cited the very naughty Josh Barro, who had said the following five days before, at the start of the fight in Wisconsin:

BARRO (2/18/11): Barack Obama weighed in Wednesday on the collective bargaining reforms that Wisconsin Republicans want to enact, and he doesn't like them. He said "some of what I've heard coming out of Wisconsin, where you're just making it harder for public employees to collectively bargain, generally seems like more of an assault on unions."

The funny thing about this statement is that the scope of collective bargaining for federal employees is sharply limited. They are forbidden to collectively bargain for wages or benefits; instead, raises are determined annually through legislation. Wisconsin unions would actually have slightly more scope for bargaining than this [if Walker’s proposal were to pass]: they could bargain for cost of living adjustments up to CPI, or more if approved in a referendum. So, if the Wisconsin law is an assault, federal employee unions have already been pummeled.

Federal employees have few collective bargaining rights. As best we can tell, no MSNBC host has ever stated that fact. It did come out on March 2, when Lawrence O’Donnell invited—who else?—Wisconsin state senator Glenn Grothman to appear on his program. (Sometimes, it seems if it weren’t for Grothman, we liberals would learn no fact sat all!)

“Look, the federal employees do not have collective bargaining rights at all, which is less than you have,” Grothman told a Wisconsin activist. “And the reason the federal employees don`t have collective bargaining rights is because Jimmy Carter got rid of them, and Barack Obama kept them away. Now, you’re expecting Scott Walker to give you far more rights than people like Barack Obama wants you to have.”

That’s pretty much the only time we’ve been allowed to hear those facts on The One True Liberal Channel. Those facts may not explain Obama’s absence from Wisconsin, but they seem to be part of the overall story about collective bargaining rights. Meanwhile, Fox viewers have heard those facts again and again, for obvious political reasons. But in the process, they’ve been allowed to learn certain facts—facts which have been kept from us liberals, who are self-admittedly smart.

In such ways, we create a thoroughly tribalized political world—a world in which two warring tribes know two different sets of facts.

If you watch MSNBC, you often get treated like rubes these days, just like viewers of Fox. On the Maddow show, you have never been told the size of Wisconsin’s pending deficit—even though Maddow has never stopped suggesting that Walker created Wisconsin’s shortfall with his (relatively minor) tax cuts. That claim is flatly false, of course. But it’s widely believed in our tribe.

On Monday night, Schultz and Flanders wondered why Obama won’t go to Wisconsin. Neither one could seem to think of a reason for his absence.

Federal workers don’t have collective bargaining rights—could that be part of the answer? Not on the One True Liberal Channel! On Fox, they heard that fact long ago. We liberals are still in the dark.

This doesn’t make MSNBC “the Fox of the left.” But we seem to be gaining ground fast.

Special report: He was the son of a teacher, man!

INTERLUDE—ANDREAS THE GIANT (permalink): Heaven help the poor American school child! This morning, a high-toned European bureaucrat has leaped to his/her defense.

The Euro in question is Andreas Schleicher, reporting live and direct from a tufted pillow in Paris. Even worse, Schleicher is on his way to this country, where he plans to expound. Sam Dillon has a few of the details in today’s New York Times:

DILLON (3/16/11): To improve its public schools, the United States should raise the status of the teaching profession by recruiting more qualified candidates, training them better and paying them more, according to a new report on comparative educational systems.

Andreas Schleicher, who oversees the international achievement test known by its acronym Pisa, says in his report that top-scoring countries like Korea, Singapore and Finland recruit only high-performing college graduates for teaching positions, support them with mentoring and other help in the classroom, and take steps to raise respect for the profession.

“Teaching in the U.S. is unfortunately no longer a high-status occupation,” Mr. Schleicher says in the report, prepared in advance of an educational conference that opens in New York on Wednesday. “Despite the characterization of some that teaching is an easy job, with short hours and summers off, the fact is that successful, dedicated teachers in the U.S. work long hours for little pay and, in many cases, insufficient support from their leadership.”

Oh good grief! That’s all we need—help from Andreas the giant! “U.S. Is Urged to Raise Teachers’ Status,” the New York Times headline says.

What seems to be wrong with Schleicher’s report? Let’s note three areas, starting with the least significant:

Teacher pay: Direct from Paris, Schleicher enters the current debate about American teacher compensation. Some of his data may be instructive, but given the way our politics works, his advice-from-abroad may well be unhelpful. “The fact is that successful, dedicated teachers in the U.S. work long hours for little pay,” Schleicher says from his Paris salon, thoughtfully setting his Dickens aside. A bit later, Dillon fleshes out some of the relevant data:

DILLON: Raising teachers’ status is not mainly about raising salaries, the report says, but pay is a factor.

According to O.E.C.D. data, the average salary of a veteran elementary teacher here was $44,172 in 2008, higher than the average of $39,426 across all O.E.C.D countries (the figures were converted to compare the purchasing power of each currency).

But that salary level was 40 percent below the average salary of other American college graduates. In Finland, by comparison, the veteran teacher’s salary was 13 percent less than that of the average college graduate’s.

Say what? American teachers “work long hours for little pay.” But their pay turns out to be substantially higher than the OECD average!

Please note: The OECD includes several countries which are fairly poor. Beyond that, the fact that American teachers’ salary level is “40 percent below the average salary of other American college graduates” should be duly noted. On the other hand, it might be better to use median salaries, given the way our salary structure now includes massive compensation for a fair number of lucky duckies. And of course, we all know by now that compensation includes more than mere salary—it also involves pension and benefits.

What’s the truth about American teachers’ pay as compared to the rest of the world? We don’t know, but Schleicher’s scolding comments from Paris may not be especially helpful in the current debate. By the way: The next time you hear the well-scripted point about the way Finland values its teachers, remember the figure above, if it’s accurate. We’re constantly told that Finland “recruits only high-performing college graduates for teaching positions.” We’re usually told that Finland’s teachers are drawn from the top third of all college grads—but it seems they get paid less than the average college graduate.

Those infernal common standards: All good bureaucrats know they must cite the need for common standards, whatever that might turn out to mean. Schleicher’s report may even be clear. Dillon’s synopsis is not:

DILLON: The “five things U.S. education reformers could learn” from the high-performing countries, the report says, include adopting common academic standards—an effort well under way here, led by state governors—developing better tests for use by teachers in diagnosing students’ day-to-day learning needs and training more effective school leaders.

“Make a concerted effort to raise the status of the teaching profession” was the top recommendation.

Do we need “common standards” for all 50 states? Or do we need “common standards” for all students in a given grade? Dillon doesn’t explain, though he assures us we’re well on the way to achieving the goal. Who knows? Schleicher may even make some sense on this point, though we think that’s highly unlikely. By now, everyone praises “common standards,” though no one ever seems to explain how this works within the American context, where many kids are doing quite well and many kids are way behind traditional norms. What’s wrong with “common standards” in the American context? Here’s Ronald Wolk, founder of Education Week, in a recent column:

WOLK (3/9/11): The brunt of [American educational] failure falls on poor and minority children, who are on the wrong side of an unyielding achievement gap. It is no coincidence that the gap is between white and most minority students. More than half of all African-American, Hispanic, and Native American students reach the 9th grade without being able to score proficient on reading and math tests. These students are more likely to fail the high-stakes tests and to drop out. They are least likely to attend college, and, if they do, they are most likely to leave without a degree.

To assume that these students fail because of “the soft bigotry of low expectations,” as President George W. Bush suggested in making the case for the No Child Left Behind Act, is preposterous. Their failure is due to the hard bigotry that generations of these kids have suffered. And high common standards won’t rectify that. Indeed, they divert attention away from the real problem by creating the illusion that things will improve if students and teachers are held to even higher standards.

In our view, Wolk makes many puzzling claims in this piece; for one example, that achievement gap hasn’t been “unyielding.” (Though substantial gaps still exist.) But in this particular passage, Wolk is right on the mark. Why would “higher common standards” help deserving kids who may be years behind their middle-class peers? How would “common standards” work in our schools at all, given our wide achievement gaps? Should kids who are years below grade level be taught the same things as our highest achievers? We first raised this question in 1989, in the Baltimore Sunday Sun. From that day to this, we’ve never seen the question addressed. But even bureaucrats in Paris know they must author this plea.

Has Schleicher ever set foot in a low-income American school? Or do his hands remain scented and clean?

Helpful collaboration: It gets worse. Schleicher isn’t doing all this on his own. He has an American friend:

DILLON: Mr. Schleicher is a senior official at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, or O.E.C.D., a Paris group that includes the world’s major industrial powers. He wrote the new report, “What the U.S. Can Learn from the World’s Most Successful Education Reform Efforts,” with Steven L. Paine, a CTB/McGraw-Hill vice president who is a former West Virginia schools superintendent, for the McGraw-Hill Research Foundation.

If one were to take the comedy angle, one of the pair is straight from Paris, the other is from Cabin Creek! But let’s resist that obvious approach, while noting another that’s equally obvious. Paine may be a smart, well-intentioned person. But CTB/McGraw-Hill is a major corporate player in the world of education, especially in the part of that world which revolves around constant testing. We favor annual testing ourselves; we’re also intrigued by the idea that we need “better tests for use by teachers in diagnosing students’ day-to-day learning needs.” But it’s amazing to see how routinely apparent conflicts of interest arise in our corporatized world.

A Parisian giant is coming to town; he plans to denounce our Dickensian ways. Does he know what he’s talking about? Not likely. If his partner makes a few bucks in the process, how could that really be bad?

Tomorrow—part 2: Why does it fall to the New York Post to explain the latest scam?