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Daily Howler: Relying on uncertain facts, Schieffer told Cheney to stuff it
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SHOULD DICK CHENEY SHUT HIS BIG YAP? Relying on uncertain facts, Schieffer told Cheney to stuff it: // link // print // previous // next //
MONDAY, MAY 11, 2009

Dittoing Digby: Digby is also getting annoyed when progressives—in this case, Olbermann and Alter—rehabilitate Colin Powell. He was “the worst chickenshit of the [Bush Admin] bunch,” Digby says, “since he had a separate power center and a special authority as an ex-general” (click here). She also plumbs Powell’s longer record—matters we skipped because we don’t know the facts well enough. We focused on the sheer absurdity of the presentation O-and-A made (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/9/09). Digby took things in a different direction. We recommend what she wrote.

A few weeks ago, Digby noted Alter’s unexplained flip on torture (click here). Personally, we like Jonathan Alter. But it made us think of his unexplained flip on the most consequential bad paraphrase in U.S. history: Al Gore said he invented the Internet! To recall his flip on that disaster, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/13/07.

Ironically, it’s a bit like that Love Story bromide. Being an actor on TV “news” shows means never having to say you’re sorry. Such actors never have to explain why they’ve conveniently flipped.

Stalking the charter school miracle: Has an educational miracle occurred at Promise Academy 1, a relatively new middle-school charter in Harlem? That’s what David Brooks said in Friday’s column. Headline: “The Harlem Miracle.”

Has a miracle really occurred? Like Brooks, we don’t know. But in his account of this miracle, Brooks quickly used a word we learned, long ago, not to trust in these contexts. For us, on first reading, the key word was “enormous.” Based on long experience, we don’t trust “enormous gains:”

BROOKS (5/8/09): The fight against poverty produces great programs but disappointing results...

That’s why I was startled when I received an e-mail message from Roland Fryer, a meticulous Harvard economist. It included this sentence: “The attached study has changed my life as a scientist.”

Fryer and his colleague Will Dobbie have just finished a rigorous assessment of the charter schools operated by the Harlem Children’s Zone. They compared students in these schools to students in New York City as a whole and to comparable students who entered the lottery to get into the Harlem Children’s Zone schools, but weren’t selected.

They found that the Harlem Children’s Zone schools produced “enormous” gains. The typical student entered the charter middle school, Promise Academy, in sixth grade and scored in the 39th percentile among New York City students in math. By the eighth grade, the typical student in the school was in the 74th percentile. The typical student entered the school scoring in the 39th percentile in English Language Arts (verbal ability). By eighth grade, the typical student was in the 53rd percentile.

We’re not sure we’d call that reading gain “enormous,” though the math gain would start to come close. But over the course of the past forty years, “enormous” score gains have, quite often, proven to be illusory or problematic. But alas! “Meticulous economists” rarely show signs of knowing this fact when they conduct their “rigorous studies.”

Brooks seems clueless too.

Are those apparent score gains real? If so, do they represent a miracle? At the GothamSchools web site, Aaron Pallas responded to Brooks under his own eye-catching headline. “Just How Gullible Is David Brooks?” the gentleman’s headline asked.

Pallas is an education professor at Columbia’s Teachers College. You can read his whole post for yourselves (just click here)—remembering that Promise Academy 1 is still quite new, and thus lacks an extended track record.

For ourselves, we’d be inclined to assume that Promise is a good deal for the students who go there. But below, you see the part of Pallas’ post which jumped out at us. Pallas notes an awkward fact: The kids who scored so well on New York’s mandatory statewide tests didn’t score very well at all on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills, a well-known national battery.

“HCZ” refers to Harlem Children’s Zone, the well-respected entity which runs Promise Academy. “ELA” refers to English Language Arts, New York state’s version of “reading:”

PALLAS (5/8/09): But here’s the kicker. In the HCZ Annual Report for the 2007-08 school year submitted to the State Education Department, data are presented on not just the state ELA and math assessments, but also the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. Those eighth-graders who kicked ass on the state math test? They didn’t do so well on the low-stakes Iowa Tests. Curiously, only 2 of the 77 eighth-graders were absent on the ITBS reading test day in June 2008, but 20 of these 77 were absent for the ITBS math test. For the 57 students who did take the ITBS math test, HCZ reported an average Normal Curve Equivalent (NCE) score of 41...

Normal Curve Equivalents (NCE’s) range from 1 to 99, and are scaled to have a mean of 50 and a standard deviation of 21.06. An NCE of 41 corresponds to roughly the 33rd percentile of the reference distribution, which for the ITBS would likely be a national sample of on-grade test-takers. Scoring at the 33rd percentile is no great success story.

In short, those same eighth-graders took the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills—and their scores were not impressive. “Scoring at the 33rd percentile [in math] is no great success story,” Pallas writes. He doesn’t mention it, but this same group scored even lower in reading on the Iowa Tests, by a tad. Their NCE was 40. (To see the “annual report” to which Pallas refers, you know what to do: Just click this.)

Why would the same eighth-grade group achieve a “miracle” on the New York State tests, then perform weakly on the Iowa Tests? Pallas describes the Promise Academy explanations. If anything, we think he’s a bit too soft in his assessment of these explanations.

What’s the real story about these tests scores? Like Brooks, we simply don’t know. But it’s very silly to shout about “miracles” on the basis on a single set of tests, at a school which hasn’t yet had the chance to establish a long-term track record. (It’s also irresponsible and self-indulgent—things HCZ stands against.) And oh yes: Over the past forty years, “enormous” score gains of this type have often turned out to be illusory. Brooks seems clueless about this undeniable fact. Fryer’s apparent gullibility seems a bit more striking.

If we actually care about these topics, a few facts should be respected. And yes, we think these are facts:

When kids produce “enormous gains” on a high-publicity test, a question is automatically raised about the way the test was administered. Is it possible that some sort of inappropriate test preparation, or some sort of inappropriate test administration, helped produce such “enormous” gains? (Deliberately or otherwise?) Like Brooks—presumably like Fryer—we have no way of knowing in this particular case. But in our current research culture, meticulous economists routinely accept such data with no questions asked—test scores produced on high-stakes tests administered by interested parties. It’s easier to talk about miracles than to acknowledge the obvious problem with this non-meticulous practice.

Put it another way: It’s easy to produce Big Research if you’re prepared to accept the validity of such data with no questions asked. It’s harder to conduct Big Research if researchers have to test children themselves, thereby assuring the validity of the test procedures.

Brooks says Fryer is meticulous. We’d say the gent may be a bit careless. How gullible is Brooks? We’re not sure. But adopting the language of school kids worldwide, we’d have to say he didn’t start this. We’d say an economist did.

SHOULD DICK CHENEY SHUT HIS BIG YAP: Should Richard Cheney shut his big yap? Bob Schieffer seemed to suggest as much on yesterday’s Face the Nation:

SCHIEFFER: Mr. Vice President, thank you for being here. You are obviously here because we invited you here, and we appreciate that. But I want to ask you something.

President Bush has done what people normally do when they leave the Oval Office; he has remained mum. He has said very little. At one point he said that he thought that President Obama deserved his silence. But you have taken a very different tack and, I must say, a very unusual tack for somebody just leaving the vice president's office. You've been speaking out not just frequently but often very pointedly. At one point, you said, for example, the Obama Administration has made this country less safe. That's a very serious charge. Why have you taken this approach?

Schieffer to Cheney: Yes, we invited you here to speak. But why don’t you shut your big yap?

Many liberals have said what Schieffer suggested—that Cheney should put a sock in it. We’re not inclined to think that ourselves, and so we recently checked the claim Schieffer made on yesterday’s program. Is it true, what Schieffer said? Is it “very unusual” for someone to run his mouth just after leaving the VP office? In truth, there are very few cases to check. But we did find one other loudmouth.

People don’t leave the VP office every day; in the past thirty years, there are only three examples other than Cheney. (Excluding VP Bush, who became president.) Two of the three kept their big yaps shut. One of the three played loudmouth.

The well-mannered fellows were an odd couple: Al Gore and Dan Quayle. Quayle said little in public in 1993, choosing instead to work on a book. Gore also worked a book in 2001. He too offered few critiques of the sitting president.

For the record, not everyone was pleased with Gore’s silence. By March 29, 2001, Richard Cohen was devoting this column to a plea for Gore to pipe up about the Bush Admin’s environmental policies. “Gore is needed,” Cohen said. We don’t fault Gore for his early approach; his situation was unique. But we’re not sure why Cohen’s view was “wrong:”

COHEN (3/29/01): Gore is needed. No one in the Democratic Party—no one in either party—speaks with his authority on environmental matters. Want to know whether Bush was right about maintaining the present standard for arsenic in water? Ask Gore. Want to know whether the president is right about mining? Ask Gore. Want to know, even, whether Bush is doing the right thing in Korea or Macedonia? Ask Gore. He knows these things. He really does.

Yet we hear nothing. This gives the impression that there is a distinction between political issues and policy. You fight about the former in a campaign and then shut up about the latter afterward. If Gore is going to try again in 2004, then he ought to open up on Bush now.

By April, Katherine “Kit” Seelye was writing this “political memo,” saying that “[s]ome of Mr. Gore's former campaign staff and allies” shared Cohen’s view about Gore’s silence—though she quoted no one by name. In fairness, this extended a trademark theme for Seelye: Whatever Gore Does Must Be Wrong.

At any rate, Quayle and Gore kept their yaps shut at first. But was Schieffer right in what he said? One former VP did run his mouth. That was the original “Rude Pundit”—the un-mannered Walter Mondale.

Mondale left his VP post in 1981, replaced by Reagan/Bush. By April 30, he was running his mouth:

NEW YORK TIMES (5/1/81): Former Vice President Walter F. Mondale contended today in a speech to the National Education Association that the Reagan Administration's proposals to reduce education spending by 25 percent would weaken the national defense.

''If you believe in a strong defense for America, you ought to begin with good schools in America,'' Mr. Mondale said.

By graduation time, he was complaining about Reagan on torture and terror!

NEW YORK TIMES (5/25/81): Former Vice President Walter F. Mondale, speaking to the 30th graduating class at Brandeis University, today criticized the Reagan Administration's human rights policies abroad.

''Torture is torture, and terror is terror,'' he said, ''and whether it occurs in Cuba, Russia, Vietnam, Argentina, Chile or El Salvador, we in America should oppose it, condemn it and do our best to stop it.''

Mr. Mondale characterized President Reagan's nomination of Ernest W. Lefever as Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights as ''sad'' and ''full of justifications for indifference.”

Four days later, Mondale was sticking his big long nose into other foreign policy matters:

NEW YORK TIMES (5/29/81): Former Vice President Walter F. Mondale yesterday criticized what he called the Reagan Administration's practice of distinguishing between the human rights attitudes of rightist and leftist regimes. He warned of risks of misunderstanding abroad and erosion of support at home for an effective foreign policy.

Mr. Mondale also said that ''if we care about Israel's security, we should not sell to Saudi Arabia a highly sophisticated and potentially destabilizing weapon like our Awacs airborne radar aircraft.''

By July, he was even “derid[ing] Reagan values,” according to a Times headline:

NEW YORK TIMES (7/23/81): Former Vice President Walter F. Mondale, describing the Reagan Administration's policies as a radical assault on the American ideal of fairness, called on the National Urban League today to fight ''icy indifference to human need and justice.''

The speech by Mr. Mondale, a long-time ally of civil rights groups, appeared to capture the spirit of participants at the league's conference here...

They applauded enthusiastically and often during Mr. Mondale's stinging criticism...

In short, Mondale spoke early and often. To be honest, there is no real historical record which makes Cheney’s conduct “very unusual,” the formulation Schieffer chose. Departed presidents almost always stifle themselves; the rule is less clear for departing VPs. As usual, Schieffer was overstating the facts a tad, in line with prevailing sentiment.

Should Cheney shut up? We don’t really see why. If he thinks the country is less safe now, we can’t see why he wouldn’t say that. In recent years, we libs have frequently offered variations on a sissified theme: Will someone please make these bad men stop talking? We think we’d be much better off learning to fight, and win, these debates. The public tends to agree with our positions, by the way.

(In today’s column, E.J. Dionne says something similar about the coming Supreme Court debate. By way of contrast, many liberals have already been complaining: How dare these Republicans speak?)

As usual, Schieffer was overstating a tad. Times have changed in the mainstream press, though. Yesterday, he tilted some weak, uncertain facts against Cheney. For many years, he tended to tilt his uncertain facts in favor of Bush Admin ploys.