DAVID BROOKS BELIEVES! David Brooks believes in Obamas agenda. And he believes in the experts: // link // print // previous // next //
TUESDAY, MARCH 17, 2009
Narratives around health care: In todays column, Gene Robinson recommends universal health coverage. As far as we know, he says nothing thats wrong or inaccurate. But we are always struck by this odd, if accurate, construction:
Whenever we see that higher taxes construction, we wonder this: How many people understand that Euro nations which already have universal coverage pay much less for health care than we do?
Its not that Robinson said something inaccurate. Were just always struck by the oddness of that need for higher taxes. Here are some data from an old Krugman column. Its amazing how rarely data like these intrude on American discourse (these are old data, of course):
Thats per person, not per health care recipient. We spend way more than these countries do. And yet, well need to pay higher taxes to achieve universal coveragewhich they already have.
The paradox of that always grabs us. But our health care discussion is narrowly circumscribed. Data like those almost never appear in the press. This saves others from being struck by the oddness of this construction.
Squealing up to the fire: Meanwhile, Philip Rucker arrives, tires squealing, at the scene of a recent fire. Weeks after it would have been relevant, the Post revealsright there on page one!that those earmarks can be quite worthwhile.
PART 1IN THE EXPERTS: David Brooks is betting the house on Obamas education agenda. We mention this because Brooks is smarter than many big scribesand because we assume hes sincere in his views about education. But in last Fridays column, Brooks sounded like many other big pundits:
Simply put, Brooks believes in the experts. At THE HOWLER, we pretty much dont.
What does David Brooks believe? As you scan last Fridays column, you hit a string of beliefsbeliefs which derive from standard cant long peddled by standard experts. These beliefs arent necessarily wrong. But does Brooks really know what hes talking about? Well offer a quick guess: He doesnt.
What does David Brooks believe? Lets tick off some basic beliefs:
Brooks believes in merit pay for good teachers. (The ones who develop emotional bonds with students). He wants to dismiss bad teachers (the ones who treat students like cattle to be processed).
Those beliefs arent necessarily wrong.
Brooks believes in the power of testing. Today, tests can tell you which students are on track and which arent, he writes. They can tell you which teachers are bringing their students achievement up by two grades in a single year and which are bringing their students levels up by only half a grade. We believe in testing too; we cant imagine running an urban system without an annual testing program. But large problems currently lurk in this area. The experts rarely mention this fact, and theres no sign that Brooks has heard.
Brooks believes in the power of higher (state) standards. He wants to replace a race to the bottom with a race to the top, with states compelled to raise their standards if they hope to get federal money. (He seems to think Mississippi will be more like Massachusetts if it would only adopt the Bay States standards.) We believe in demanding the best from kids too. But magical thinking about higher standards has been Prime Expert Cant for decades. In many ways, its remarkably sillythough Brooks doesnt seem to have heard.
Most importantly, Brooks seems to believe that he understands public schools. Pundits all seem to think they know schoolsperhaps because they all attended fifth grade once themselves. But do pundits really understand schools? When such putative experts start to expound, you may hit minor conflicts. Like this:
No, theres no contradiction there, if you read Brooks full column with care. (Well give more detail as the week proceeds.) But if Brooks is so skillful at measuring progress, youd think he would know that achievement rates have been rising in American schools, for some time now. (This has been happening even as the percentage of lower-scoring minority and second-language students has increased.) If those data are right, thats actually sort of impressive. But Obamas address traded day for night, gloomily churning old pseudo-con dogma about the decline of American schools. And uh-oh! Brooks seems drawn to this doom and gloom tooto a vision in which the education establishment deliberately impedes the progress his high-minded colleagues desire.
Well bite! If weve learned to measure progress so well, why isnt Brooks praising that education establishment? Hasnt it helped produce the gains our best data keep suggesting? The gains about which Obama misstated? The gains Brooks doesnt cite?
In fairness, Brooks never says whether things are betting better or worse in American schools. But he does quote gloomy Arne Duncan, as the Ed Sec morosely describes that undefined race to the bottom. And before long, hes praising Obamas attempt to stop the madness that term might imply. Again, the casual reader might get the sense that our schools are in head-long decline:
Somehow, that race to the bottom will come to an endif Obama can make other states behave like Massachusetts. Again, nothing is actually wrong in this passage, if you read Brooks total column. But does Brooks really know whereof he speaks? Our guess would be no: He does not.
We dont mean this as an insult to Brooks; we think hes smarter than most major scribes, and were sure hes sincere in these statements. But most pundits seem to think they understand public schools, and well guess that very few really do. Theyve heard the same cant, for year after year, from educational experts of the left and the right. This expert cant is often lacking, but it drives much Big Pundit Thought.
Big pundits believe that they understand schools! This can lead to confident claimsto simplified statements which read like novels. Consider the slightly loopy claim Brooks is making by paragraph 4:
The story can get extremely simple when pundits expound on the schools. In this case, Brooks is telling this heart-warming tale by the time he hits paragraph 4. A high school grad can reel off the names of teachers who mattered in his life, Brooks believes; high-school drop-outs wont even know what youre talking about! This is a simplified, novelized tale. But we have no idea why Brooks believes it, or why he would make this related claim: What matters most is the relationship between one student and one teacher.
These claims are heartwarmingbut are they true? Wed guess that they arent (more below). And uh-oh! This reads like a novel.
Who knows? Like many experts, Brooks seems to believe theres a villain to this piece. He doesnt say words likes teachers or unionsbut education establishment might come close, at least for those who lack a trained ear. Meanwhile, as he closes his column, another villain swims into view: Liberal orthodoxy on school reform (which he says Obama has wisely rejected). Thats a standard villain in Big Pundit Lore. We think it dumbs Brooks piece down.
Lets return to first things: We regard Brooks as smart and sincere. Thats why we were struck by much of his column. To us, it often seemed he was often channeling cant, cant heard from a thousand experts. In recent decades, the experts have tended to say the same things, over and over and over again. Based on our own time in Baltimore classrooms, the magical things we hear them say often seem just flat wrong.
And sometimes, its clear that the experts are clueless. Well save that for Part 4.
At any rate, David Brooks seems to believe in those experts. And he believes in Obamas agenda. For ourselves, were hopeful about that agendaalthough some things in Obamas address were just wrong. But David Brooks? He plainly believes. Given the cant of the past twenty years, were not real surprised that he does.
Brooks believes in the power of tests, and in the power of higher (state) standards. And he seems to believes that some villains are lurking. Mostly, he seems to believe in the experts. Over the course of the next several days, well review a few of the ways our Stale Expert Cant can be lackingor just flat-out wrong.
TOMORROWPART 2: In the power of testing
Brooks gets it right: We do think Brooks (largely) got it right as he closed his column:
Well skip the parts about shamefully quiet. Beyond that, we have no particular view about the continuation of DCs voucher program. But we too were amazed at the idea that kids already in the program might be cut off, returned to their previous schools. It seems to us theres a word for that: cold. We think Brooks got this (largely) right.
About that novelized story: Really? A high school grad can reel off the names of the teachers who mattered in his life? On what planet?
For ourselves, we can name at least several teachers to whom we really are grateful. We attended this California high school from 1961 through 1965, when the Golden State was still young. (Today, its the nations 341st best high school, according to the obsessives at Newsweek.) New high schools were opening every ten minutes; our brand-new school was full of young teachers, many of whom went extra miles. One in particular did a truly fine thing, one day in our freshman year. Weve always been grateful we were there when he did.
(And look at Daskarolisa good, cheerful man! Bill Daskarolis still calls himself crazy, even after all these (44) years!)
But we recently visited with old friends who graduated from the same school. Who was Ronnie talking about? The basketball coach at our rival high school, who always thought better of his game than our own coach did. But then, Ronnie wasnt on a college track, except perhaps as a basketball player. Wed guess he got a lot less attention from teachers than some other kids did.
Quick guess: The country is teeming with high school grads who cant reel off the names of teachers who mattered in their lives. To our ear, Brooks believes in a simplified, upper-end tale. Analyses often end up badly when they start off with novels like that.
We dont know if this is true: The community around our old high school became very high-end as the Silicon Valley spread north. Is this comment accurate? No idea. But you see a few points it suggests:
Sometimes, when we raise expectations, we may leave some behind. Even if they graduate, what stories will they later tell?