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Ravitch's claims are highly persuasive. Until you look at the data
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DATA DUMPED! Ravitch’s claims are highly persuasive. Until you look at the data: // link // print // previous // next //

Olbermann [HEART] Tom Coburn: All of a sudden, Senator Coburn (R-Oklahoma) is a liberal heart throb! At a recent town hall meeting in Oklahoma, Coburn told a room full of Oklahomans that they have been misled by Fox—and that Nancy Pelosi is a nice person, although she’s wrong on the merits. For Steve Benen’s account of this interesting matter, just click here. But we were especially struck when we saw Keith Olbermann pimping this story last night, helped by our own Gene Robinson.

Egads! On several occasions, Coburn had told his constituents the truth: They keep getting played by Fox. He told one woman that she had been played about the idea that she’d go to jail if she didn’t buy health insurance. He told the whole room that they had been played about what Pelosi is like as a person. Beaming like a pure-bred hack, KO played the audiotape of this fascinating statement by Coburn:

COBURN (3/31/10): I’m 180 degrees in opposition to the Speaker. She’s a nice lady. I don’t think we can wait—[responding to muttering in the room] Come on now! She is a nice—how many of you have met her? She is a nice person.

Just because somebody disagrees with you doesn’t mean they are not a good person. What we have to have is make sure we have a debate in this country so that you can see what’s going on and make the determination yourself.

So don’t catch yourself being biased by Fox News that somebody’s no good. The people in Washington are good. They just don’t know what they don’t know.

As he continued, KO played tape of something else Coburn said at that meeting. What Coburn said was quite wise:

OLBERMANN (continuing directly): Senator Coburn would end this gathering by imploring his constituents to consider various sources for their information, not just right-wing media. He then appeared to suggest that what Fox News was doing was, in fact, bad for America.

COBURN (audiotape): I want to tell you, I do a lot of reading every day. I’m disturbed we get things like what this lady said, and others have said on other issues, that are so disconnected to what I know to be the facts. That comes from somebody that has an agenda other than the best interest of our country. And so please balance and be careful.

OLBERMANN: I’m shaking here. Let’s bring in the associate editor and Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist of the Washington Post, MSNBC political analyst Gene Robinson. Good evening, Gene.

For ourselves, we agree with the various things Coburn said. For that reason, we came away from this segment asking a basic question:

Is there a bigger hypocrite/fraud on the planet than our own Keith Olbermann?

We asked that question for two reasons. First, we remembered how hacks like Olbermann behaved the last time they got mileage from Coburn. They jumped up and down and played the fool, pretending that Coburn had said something offensive to then-nominee Sonia Sotomayor (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/20/09). In fact, Coburn had conducted a long, respectful colloquy with Sotomayor; he then voted against her nomination on what he said were the merits. But just as Fox enjoys doing with Pelosi, hacks like Olbermann like to pretend that people on the other side have to be bad evil racists. That was the card our own hacks played on that occasion with Coburn. (In the months since then, Maddow has endlessly played the “bad person” card about the fact that Coburn lived at C Street. And yes—that is what she’s done.)

We shook our heads for a second reason. As Olbermann of course understands full well, Coburn would say these same things about Olbermann himself and MSNBC—and he would be right. Let’s be candid: MSNBC does have “an agenda” now too. We liberals are constantly “being biased by [MSNBC] that somebody’s no good,” just as conservatives are being biased by Fox. Olbermann is a humongous hack; he has lost his soul in the past seven years. This has rarely been as clear as it was during last night’s segment.

Final point: Coburn did something very important on March 31. He stood before a room of citizens and told them they’re being misled. For years, we have screamed, howled, shouted and yelled, suggesting that liberals need to develop platforms from which we respectfully go before these voters and tell them this same darn thing. But none of those voters would ever listen to a word KO or Maddow said. Our own leaders have endlessly mocked, and ridiculed, and insulted the voters who sat in that room with Coburn. Those voters would never listen to us when we told them the truth about Fox. We have traded away our relevance, as our clowns and hacks push their own agendas—agendas which are closely tied to the corporation’s desire to make large profits.

It was one year ago next week that Maddow, and then Olbermann, spent an entire week directing dick jokes at the voters who sat in that room with Coburn. Last night, Olbermann pretended to be impressed when Coburn stated an obvious fact: “Just because somebody disagrees with you doesn’t mean they are not a good person.”

Olbermann and Maddow don’t really believe that. This explains how they could have staged that repulsive, week-long orgy last year, as their idiot boss looked on.

Olbermann is consummate hack—a millionaire lost soul, a vintage “poor immigrant.” This was on full display last night as he played his liberal viewers again—just as they do on Fox.

Special report: Ravished by Ravitch!

PART 3—DATA DUMPED (permalink): Diane Ravitch is an (educational) party-switcher (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/5/10). For that reason, she’s currently hot. “I used to be a strong supporter of school accountability and choice,” Ravitch writes, at the start of an op-ed column in last Friday’s Washington Post. “But in recent years, it became clear to me that these strategies were not working.”

These are very important matters. For that reason, it’s important to know if Ravitch’s foundational claim here is accurate. Is it true that “these strategies” haven’t been working? In the opening paragraph of her column, Ravitch offered a statistic designed to support this stance:

RAVITCH (4/2/10): I used to be a strong supporter of school accountability and choice. But in recent years, it became clear to me that these strategies were not working. The federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) program enacted in 2002 did not produce large gains in reading and math. The gains in math were larger before the law was implemented, and the most recent national tests showed that eighth-grade students have made no improvement in reading since 1998. By mandating a utopian goal of 100 percent proficiency, the law encouraged states to lower their standards and make false claims of progress. Worse, the law stigmatized schools that could not meet its unrealistic expectation.

Ravitch paints a gloomy picture in the highlighted passage, though her meaning needs to be teased out a bit. From what she writes, it’s fairly clear that there have been gains in math since No Child Left Behind took effect; Ravitch complains that the gains in math were larger before that date. When she discusses reading, she goes back to 1998 to make a gloomy claim—eighth-graders “have made no improvement in reading” since that date.

On the surface, it isn’t clear why we’d go back to 1998 to assess a program (NCLB) which started in 2002. That said, the movement for “school accountability and choice” was in wide effect, at the state-by-state level, long before No Child Left Behind. If there has been no progress since 1998, that would suggest that the foundations of this movement must be severely flawed.

Those statistical claims are very important—but are they actually accurate? First, let’s consider the claim Ravitch made about reading. For our money, this claim is grossly misleading, like other statistical claims we have seen in Ravitch’s work.

Ravitch’s claim helps drive us toward the latest educational fad, just as her work tended to do when she was serving the previous fad. But her claim also misleads the public. When it comes to the lives of low-income children, will this sort of thing ever stop?

Have American kids made progress in reading since 1998? Ravitch refers to the recently-released, 2009 reading scores from the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP). On-line, her column offers this link, and so we offer it too. But while Ravitch’s claim is technically accurate in the narrow sense, it is also grossly misleading. In fact, American kids have shown significant progress on the NAEP reading tests since 1998. And they’ve shown massive gains in math during that same period. (The NAEP tests fourth- and eighth-graders, in reading and math.)

Since 1998, what sort of progress have fourth- and eighth-graders shown in reading and math on the NAEP? Let’s start with reading, the subject from which Ravitch cherry-picked that statistic. And let’s review the “disaggregated” data, which lets us examine the progress of our big demographic blocks (white kids, black kids, Hispanic kids) separately.

In fourth-grade reading, American kids seem to have shown good progress since 1998. (Click here, then move ahead to page 9, Figure 4.) Since 1998, white kids have gained five points on the NAEP scale; by the rough rule of thumb which is often used, this would be equivalent to roughly one-half year of growth. And things only get better from there. Black fourth-graders have gained twelve points in reading during that period, roughly 1.2 years. Hispanic kids have made the same gain—twelve points, 1.2 years. Warning! This “rough rule of thumb” is very rough; we long for the day when some major newspaper asks NAEP officials to discuss the meaning of these score gains in some serious detail. (Along with other true experts.) But this rough rule of thumb has been widely used; its surface logic is apparent. (Don’t ask.) If we do apply that rough rule of thumb, those score gains seem quite consequential.

By the way: Children scoring at the tenth percentile have also gained twelve points in reading during that period (move back to page 8, Figure 2). This suggests that our current lowest-achieving fourth-graders are more than a year ahead of their counterparts from 1998. If that’s true, it’s remarkable progress.

The picture in eighth-grade reading is worse. (Move ahead to page 26, Figure 15.) In fact, this is the worst of the four possible measures, which presumably explains why Ravitch featured it. Since 1998, white eighth-graders have only advanced three points on the NAEP scale in reading—perhaps three-tenths of a year. Black eighth-graders have advanced only two points. That said, Hispanic kids have advanced six points—theoretically, more than half a year. Kids at the tenth percentile have also advanced by only three points (page 25, Figure 13). This is the gloomiest of the NAEP’s four subject categories. But do these figures represent “no improvement in reading since 1998?” Maybe it all depends on what the meaning of “no” is.

This brings us to math. In math, fourth- and eighth-graders seem to have shown strong progress on the NAEP just since the year 2000. (The NAEP didn’t test math in 1998.) Black fourth-graders gained a full nineteen points on the NAEP scale from 2000 to 2009. (Click here, move ahead to page 9, Figure 4.) Hispanic kids also gained nineteen points, white kids a mere fourteen. Fourth-graders who scored at the tenth percentile gained eighteen points. And when it comes to math, this pattern obtains among eighth-graders too (move ahead to page 24, Figure 15). Black eighth-graders gained seventeen points on the NAEP scale from 2000 to 2009. Hispanic kids gained thirteen points; white kids gained twelve. Eighth-graders scoring at the tenth percentile gained thirteen points during that period (move back to page 23, Figure 13).

Let’s say it again: We dream of the day when some major newspaper shakes the cobwebs out of its head and asks true experts to offer their take on what these score gains actually mean. But the New York Times has routinely applied that “ten points equals one year” rule of thumb; if that rule of thumb is close to accurate, some rather large achievement gains were indicated in reading and math between 1998/2000 and 2009. What was the cause of these score gains? Did these score gains possibly stem from some worthwhile aspects of the testing/standards/accountability movement? Surely, we might want to find out—or at least ask—before we launch the next fad.

Granted, Ravitch’s newest proposal—We should teach science and history!—doesn’t count as much of a fad, although we whole-heartedly agree with that prescription. (For one thing, deserving children learn how to read by immersing themselves in those subject areas.) For our money, Ravitch doesn’t seem to have a lot of suggestions about where we should go from here—but that has frequently been the case among our “educational experts.” Tomorrow, we’ll offer our own modest thoughts about changes we might engineer in the classroom, although we have no way of knowing what sorts of gains these changes might cause. But we’ll leave you with a couple of questions as we close this morning’s musing:

Was Ravitch conveying an accurate picture when she authored that gloomy claim? (“No improvement in reading since 1998.”) Did her opening paragraph present an accurate picture of the way these NAEP scores actually look? The NAEP tests kids in fourth and eighth grades; it tests these kids in reading and math. Based on the data to which we have linked you, are you sure it’s time for a smokin’ new fad? Time to dump all past procedures?

We ask these questions because they matter—because the lives of those children matter. The lives of our “educational experts” more often seem tied to hot fads.

Tomorrow: Where are the “liberals?”

Since 2002: How about Ravitch’s other claim—the claim that gains in math have slowed in the years since NCLB? This looks like a highly feathered claim. Black eighth-graders gained twelve points in math from 1996 through 2003; that’s 1.7 points per year. They gained nine points from 2003 through 2009; that’s only 1.5 points per year. (On the other hand, Hispanic eighth-graders have gained marginally more in math, on a per-annum basis, since 2003.) But this seems to be an extremely feathered claim—the type of claim which may be technically accurate, but actually tends to mislead.

Remember: The standards-and-accountability movement was in full swing long before No Child Left Behind. Are you as sure as Ravitch seems to be that she was bad wrong the first time?