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Daily Howler: Brooks believes in higher standards--for ten-year children, that is
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IN HIGHER STANDARDS! Brooks believes in higher standards—for ten-year children, that is: // link // print // previous // next //
THURSDAY, MARCH 19, 2009

Spin and Marty: As he starts this morning’s column, E. J. Dionne describes the problem defining the age. He’s speaking about our financial elite, though the problem extends a bit farther:

DIONNE (3/19/09): Conservatives have argued for decades that the sins most dangerous to our society were rooted in lust when in fact they were rooted in greed.

We are at the beginning of a great popular rebellion against those who showed no self-restraint when it came to lining their own pockets. Their entitlement mentality arose from an inflated sense of their own value and of how much smarter they were than everyone else.

Later, he describes a famous way society has changed in the past fifty years:

DIONNE: A study of compensation levels in 2007 found that average CEO pay at S&P 500 companies was 344 times higher than the average worker's wage, and that the top 50 investment fund managers took home 19,000 times—yes, that's with three zeroes—as much as typical workers earned.

Now, I am not against people getting rich or entrepreneurs reaping profit from their investments of time and energy. But there is no moral or practical justification for such levels of inequality. Capitalism worked extremely well in the three decades after World War II without such radical inequities. It's when inequalities soar that the system runs into trouble...

More specifically, it’s when elite compensation soars that the system runs into trouble. You simply can’t pay people that much without creating a crackpot culture. In the 1950s, CEOs are said to have earned only forty times the average wage. That was a vastly different culture—a culture which, in this respect, seems to have been less insane.

You can’t pay gigantic sums to elites without creating a crackpot culture. We thought of that when we read, in this morning’s Times, that Betsy Blair had died.

It isn’t just Natasha Richardson, who also starred in one of our favorite films (more tomorrow). So too Blair, who starred in Marty, the 1955 Oscar winner. In today’s report, the Times describes her as the “shy love interest” in the film. But in fact, the film turned on something different; to the male friends of the title character, the Blair character wasn’t pretty enough. The film turns on the Ernest Borgnine character’s ability to see past the pressure brought by his friends (and by his immigrant mother, who wants him to marry “an Italian girl”). In the end of the film, Marty Piletti—a meek, very “average” person himself—stands up, in a speech to his friends, for what he himself truly feels:

MARTY PILETTI: You don't like her. My mother don't like her. She's a dog—and I'm a fat, ugly man. Well, all I know is I had a good time last night. I'm gonna have a good time tonight. If we have enough good times together, I'm gonna get down on my knees. I'm gonna beg that girl to marry me. If we make a party on New Year's, I got a date for that party. You don't like her? That's too bad.

In 1955, you could win the Oscar (and the grand prize at Cannes) with a film which turned on that speech. In many ways, our society was much less enlightened then. In other ways, we may have been brighter.

CEOs weren’t earning nearly as much. Apparently, they didn’t yet feel the need. Today, our financial elites—and our “journalistic” elites—are paid enormous sums. In some cases, our journalistic stars are paid those sums by the same sorts of corporate elements found at AIG.

You can’t pay people those kinds of salaries without creating a crackpot culture. That in mind:

Some people complained when we rolled our eyes at Olbermann’s serial nonsense last week. We think we understand that reaction; we all like to feel that we’re part of a team. But Countdown increasingly is a sick joke, both in the level of its political “reasoning” and in its gong-show values. It isn’t fair to ask a cable show to rise to the level of a film like Marty. But here you see our progressive star gonging again, this Tuesday night. You can watch the tape yourself (just click here). With some classy cover art, it appears under the MSNBC headline, “Brothel bargain:”

OLBERMANN (3/17/09): And number-one best recession response, an unidentified brothel in Berlin, in Germany. During what it calls off-peak hours, 10 am to 4 pm, it is offering a flat fee for its services. Access to the professional women in the place, plus unlimited food and drinks, 70 Euros, about 90 dollars.

Let’s try a TV experiment. For the sake of kids who might be watching and would have to stifle their laughs so their parents don’t find out that they would get this joke, let me try to broadcast this joke telepathically. All right, one hint: Think the endless salad bar special at the sizzler. OK, now you got it.

For ourselves, we still don’t “get it;” even after watching the tape, we have no idea what this telepathic joke was. We do know why Olbermann offered this segment—he wanted to talk about brothels! And minutes later, he and one of his idiot friends were discussing how much meat they like on a woman’s bones. You see, a cat-fight had broken out among three famous women (Ann Coulter, Laura Ingraham, Meghan McCain). Keith and his buddy were on it:

OLBERMANN (3/17/09): Right here, as promised, the host of the pop culture program of record, E exclamation point network’s The Soup, Joel McHale.

MCHALE: Yes, the useful idiot.

[...]

OLBERMANN: This won’t get resolved until we get all three of them in the same room, with Ms. McCain walking in like an ordinary human being, Ann Coulter and Laura Ingraham just sliding into that space between the bottom of the door and the top of the floor.

MCHALE: Yeah, if they get in the same room, that means the Cylon civil war will continue [Battleship Galactica reference], and that means they’ll all be there. And if they’re Cylons, that’s like a two, a three, and an eight. Meghan being an eight. The other two—not as attractive. Because I like a little—sorry, Keith. Just a little meat on my bones.

OLBERMANN: Well, OK. I’m—OK. There’s nothing that I can say about that.

MCHALE: Sorry, go ahead.

OLBERMANN: —that won’t get me into more trouble than I already am on this topic.

Poor Keith! He had to stifle! But as they continued, the lads even dragged poor Tyra Banks in. Because she’s so stupid, of course:

OLBERMANN (continuing directly): In fact, would you recommend, and I know you’re the expert, you’re the reigning expert on this woman. Would you think this is exactly, this is built for Tyra Banks to try to intervene with?

MCHALE: I can’t believe I’m going to say this, Keith. But this is below Tyra.

OLBERMANN: Wow!

MCHALE: Just a little bit. But it’s nice to know that in probably 200 years, she’ll be as well quoted as Ralph Waldo Emerson, I think.

OLBERMANN: Because what, all books have been destroyed and there are no records of anything?

MCHALE: It will be like Fahrenheit 451 and it will just be Tyra Banks.

OLBERMANN: Or Roller Ball.

Does anyone know why these twinned baboons seem to think they’re smarter than Banks?

Forget about the gong-show values this big gender-nut seems to live for. The sheer stupidity of Olbermann’s show seems to increase every night. The “reasoning” behind his worst-person, best-person and “Still Bushed” narratives seems more tortured every time out. And surely, we can see the (admittedly comical) problem which lurks in this typical format:

OLBERMANN (3/13/09): Are Republican governors now deliberately sabotaging the recovery? We will ask Congressman James Clyburn.

Too funny! We wonder what Clyburn will say? But no one appears on this show who doesn’t pre-agree with its host.

Increasingly, it seems Olbermann’s staff must spend ten minutes preparing each evening’s program.

We understand that people like to believe that this program is part of their team’s group effort. But Olbermann is paid $5 million by the same corporate buffoons who paid Chris Matthews all through the last decade. At that time, they spun you against Clinton—and very hard against Gore. Now, they spin you in the other direction.

A modern nation can’t run on dumb. But when corporate owners pay people this much, a crackpot culture will result every time. Each evening, that culture is on full display. Dionne defines an existential problem in this morning’s piece.

Special report: David Brooks believes!

Read each thrilling installment: When it comes to public schools, David Brooks believes. Read each thrilling installment:

Part 1: David Brooks believes in Obama’s agenda. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/17/09.

Part 2: David Brooks believes in the power of tests. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/18/09.

In part 3, we see that Brooks believes in higher standards:

PART 3—IN HIGHER STANDARDS: Like almost every major pundit, David Brooks believes in higher standards—for ten-year-old children, that is. Many of our major scribes hold themselves and their colleagues to quite fluid standards. But children seem to deserve so much more! Confronted with the lives of children, pundits’ pleasure in standards comes forth.

In the following part of last Friday’s column, Brooks explains the way Obama will make states adopt higher standards. A “race to the bottom” may end, Brooks believes—if the various states will comply:

BROOKS (3/13/09): The administration also will give money to states like Massachusetts that have rigorous proficiency standards. The goal is to replace the race to the bottom with a race to the top, as states are compelled to raise their standards if they hope to get federal money.

States will be “compelled to raise their standards,” and this of course sounds like a good thing. Unfortunately, it isn’t clear from Brooks’ column just what this act would consist in. Clearly, Brooks wants other states to be more like Massachusetts—a state which has “rigorous proficiency standards.” Does this mean we want all the states to have tough statewide tests, so kids will have to meet a “high standard” in order to get themselves rated “proficient?” Does it mean we want the states prescribing tougher material—in fourth-grade math, let us say? (In principle, these are two different things. A state could prescribe tough material, then have easy tests.) As is often the case in these matters, Brooks never quite explains; we’ll guess that he’d want both improvements, so lofty are his ideals. And here’s something else: We’ll guess that Brooks has no idea how much pain and dysfunction his prescriptions can cause, as children who can’t meet existing standards are asked to meet those which are higher.

What exactly does David Brooks want? In his next paragraph, the murk only deepens. Consider this fuller passage:

BROOKS: The administration also will give money to states like Massachusetts that have rigorous proficiency standards. The goal is to replace the race to the bottom with a race to the top, as states are compelled to raise their standards if they hope to get federal money.

In short, Obama hopes to change incentives so districts do the effective and hard things instead of the easy and mediocre things. The question is whether he has the courage to follow through. Many doubt he does...

According to Brooks, Obama wants school districts to “do the effective and hard things,” not “the easy and mediocre things.” You’re right—that’s almost comically vague. But so it goes when pundits take time from their busy days to rattle stale cant about schools. (By the way: Nothing is “easier” than teaching material which is over kids’ heads, then clucking about how hopeless they are when they fail and cry. Nothing is “easier” than working straight from the book, even if it’s years too advanced.)

By now, every scribe has recited this tale about the need for more rigorous standards; it has been thoroughly standard fare for the past twenty years. Last week, we discussed this notion in some detail, pointing to the contradictions contained in the sweet-sounding nostrum (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/13/09). In the real world, a tougher curriculum might be great for some kids; for other kids, such a change can be quite destructive. The reason for that is fairly simple—eighth-graders aren’t all alike. Is there really any state where all eighth-graders (let us say) take the same math course? Where the kids on track for MIT are taught the same math as the good, decent kids who may be years below grade level? Does Massachusetts really teach the same math to every child who is an eighth-grader? We assume the obvious answer is “no,” which leaves us puzzled by Brooks’ cry. If Mississippi adopts Massachusetts standards, how would that act affect the kids who may be struggling far below level? Most likely, it wouldn’t affect them at all. But in the decades in which big pundits have recited the cant of the “standards movement,” we’ve never seen a single pundit—or a single “expert”—flesh out this puzzling tale.

How would “rigorous standards” help struggling kids? The question rarely occurs to big scribes. They’ve never set foot in a low-income school; there’s little chance they ever will. Instead, they type their memorized tales, featuring well-known heros and villains. The heros are always high-minded “reformers.” the villains, who stand in the way of the heros, are said to believe in “liberal orthodoxy on school reform.”

After all these years, we have no idea how “higher standards” are supposed to work for Mississippi’s struggling children. Your pundits don’t have a clue either.

In fairness, the passage we have quoted follows the most intriguing part of Brooks’ column. In that passage, he quoted the gloomy Arne Duncan saying something quite surprising—something which is perfectly true. But Brooks understands his brief so poorly, he doesn’t explain what Duncan meant. In this passage, the Ed Sec’s highlighted statement is remarkably strong:

BROOKS: Thanks in part to No Child Left Behind, we’re a lot better at measuring each student’s progress. Today, tests can tell you which students are on track and which aren’t....

The problem is that as our ability to get data has improved, the education establishment’s ability to evade the consequences of data has improved, too. Most districts don’t use data to reward good teachers. States have watered down their proficiency standards so parents think their own schools are much better than they are.

As Education Secretary Arne Duncan told me, “We’ve seen a race to the bottom. States are lying to children. They are lying to parents. They’re ignoring failure, and that’s unacceptable. We have to be fierce.”

“States are lying to parents,” Duncan said, although it isn’t quite clear what he meant. We’ll guess that this is a reference to tests—to “watered-down” tests which are quite easy, thereby producing artificially high passing rates. States really can mislead parents this way—and in several others, of course. Duncan used a very strong word in that quoted remark. In a different world, a pundit like Brooks would have tried to nail down what he meant.

States really can mislead parents this way; Duncan even said (some) states are lying. And sure enough! Three years ago, we discovered the way one major state was systematically overstating its passing rates. This state was baldly misleading its parents. It had done so for several years.

Eventually, the head of the state’s school board acknowledged the state’s problem to us. (He was a civilian, not an education professional.) He told us he hadn’t known this was occurring. We took him at his word, although it’s absurd to think that professionals in this state’s education department didn’t know they were running a scam.

Good grief! It was much as Duncan said! In this case, a major state had adopted bogus reporting procedures, thereby producing fake passing rates. And when we reported this startling fact, do you recall what happened? When people like Brooks talk up these high-minded reformers, you might want to recall what these high-minded experts did when presented with this type of problem.

Tomorrow—Part 4: In a Potemkin class