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Caveat lector

TWO DIFFERENT WORLDS! We tip our hat to Winerip’s work—and look back as the press corps spins Sidney:

FRIDAY, MAY 23, 2003

FINE WINERIP: The fuzzy thinking that drives our education debates has to be seen to be believed. Consider Chester Finn’s appearance on last night’s O’Reilly Factor.

For years, Finn has been a conservative go-to guy on public education issues. Last night, he discussed the current situation in Florida, where ten percent of this year’s senior class have failed a “graduation exam.”

In his first question, O’Reilly wanted to know if Florida’s “minority kids” were flunking the test because they “don’t have good schools.” Finn said yes, that is why minority students are flunking—and he offered a strange account of the logic behind high-stakes testing:

FINN: Well, the point of [the testing], of course, is to get the schools to change and get the schools to do better by the kids. And testing is pretty common around the country. Minority kids often do worse on the tests because, for the most part, they’ve got worse schools to go to. Fixing the schools is the point of this program, not punishing the kids. But if we don’t have any evidence about how the kids are doing, and if there are no consequences for anybody about passing or failing, then the schools are going to stay just as lousy as they are. [Finn’s emphasis]
Put aside your views on graduation exams and focus instead on Finn’s logic. According to Finn, minority kids do poorly on these tests because “for the most part, they’ve got worse schools to go to.” But instead of taking direct action against the schools, Finn says we must flunk the students—and then the schools will somehow improve. O’Reilly challenged him on his logic. “If it’s true that the minority community has the worst schools and worst teachers,” he said, “you are punishing the kids if they can’t pass the test, are you not?” Finn made his point once again:
FINN: This is a painful moment when you try to change bad schools so they do better by kids. What’s going to force the schools to change? One thing that’s going to force the schools to change is that their kids aren’t getting diplomas because the school is not preparing them to pass the test. It’s like an external audit.
But if the “audit” shows that the schools are bad, why not take action against the schools? A few moments later, Finn offered his point for the third time. “Minority kids tend to go to the worst schools, and they tend to have the lowest scores, and they are where the problem is,” he said. “The whole point of this national testing movement is not punish kids. It’s to close the gap.”

For the record, we disagree with Finn’s general view about why minority kids often do poorly. More specifically, we don’t think the problem is caused by local schools, or can be fixed by teachers and principals. (There are major problems in urban schools that could be fixed from higher levels.) But at any rate, Finn offered no ideas about how Florida’s crummy schools could be improved. He simply said we should flunk the kids, and then the schools would be forced to get better.

Finn offered no ideas about how to fix those bad schools. He simply served up fuzzy logic. But fuzzy logic is the reliable norm in America’s public school debates. And that’s why we were so impressed with Michael Winerip’s glittering New York Times column on Wednesday (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/21/03). Winerip discussed a related issue—the use of “high-stakes tests” in elementary schools to determine student promotion. And he displayed the clear logic, good heart, and awareness of research that was missing on last’s night Factor. Why, he even quoted an elementary principal who clearly explained how our schools really work! It’s almost impossible to find such work in our education reporting. Our discussions are ruled by men like Finn—know-nothings rattling off cant.

This week, we’ve looked at the fake and phony way our political “press corps” has reviewed a new book. In the context of our modern, corrupted press, Winerip’s piece is like something flown in from a distant planet. He displays intelligence, preparation—and a good heart. How in the world did Michael Winerip fall in with America’s “press corps?”

ALL HAIL PRINCIPAL LEGGETT: Make no mistake—crackpot logic rules our education debates. Last fall, for example, Yamil Berard of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram was discussing a new testing program in the Texas schools. This new program, the TAKS, would replace a familiar old testing program, the TAAS. Starting in 2003 with third graders, the new test would be used to determine promotion.

At one point, Berard explained why the TAAS had been dumped. Berard refers to Arlington school board member John McInnis:

BERARD: McInnis, like other trustees, are [sic] anxious about the TAKS, which this year will replace the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills. The TAAS is being scrapped after more than a decade because so many students were acing it. But officials at some school districts say they are flying blind on the TAKS and have only had a peek at instruction guides and sample questions.
Good lord! According to Berard, the old testing program was being scrapped because so many students were passing it! But if a test was designed to measure preparation for the next grade, why in the world would a state be upset because too many children were passing? Multiply that logic a million times and you have America’s public school debate. By the way, need we say that this switch in Texas tests was engineered by its former governor, George Bush?

Do third-grade “promotion tests” make sense? In Winerip’s column, a Florida principal, Stephen Leggett, explains how elementary schools really work. As former elementary school teachers ourselves, we were stunned to read this clear exposition in a major newspaper. The Chester Finns wouldn’t convey this much info if they rattled on for the next hundred years:

WINERIP: The situation at Lake Silver Elementary [in Orlando] seems pretty typical. The school is half white, half black. Of Lake Silver’s 101 third graders, 23 failed…

Mr. Leggett, who has been principal for 21 years, and his five third-grade teachers believe none of the 23 should be held back. For reading, Lake Silver students are grouped by ability, with the slowest readers placed in the smallest group that gets the most individualized attention. Third graders are pushed to read the most challenging books they can; some read sixth-grade books, while others read second-grade books.

Mr. Leggett said next year, whether those 23 sit in a fourth-grade classroom or third-grade classroom, they would do the same reading work—the highest level they could. And they would get the same reading help in either case.

The only difference? In a third-grade class “they’ll have the bad feelings of being held back,” he said.

Guess what, citizens? In third-grade classrooms, kids aren’t all instructed from the same books! And they aren’t all instructed on the same reading level! Nor is it desirable that they should be. There is a wide range of ability and achievement among nine-year old children, and nothing schools could ever do could ever change that fact. In most schools, as in Leggett’s, kids get their reading instruction with other kids who are on the same “reading level.” (In a large school like Leggett’s, with five teachers per grade, the kids may even change classrooms for reading.) Those 23 kids will get exactly, precisely the same instruction whether their classroom door says “3” or “4”. As Leggett and Winerip both understand, there is almost never any real reason for retaining a nine-year old student.

Leggett and Winerip know things like that. Fatuous front-men like Finn simply don’t. Indeed, how vacuous is “Dr. Finn,” as Bill had to call him? At one point, O’Reilly asked why Florida’s minority schools are so bad. The Doctor was IN—and said this:

FINN: There’s a lot that has been going on in the schools for 20, 30 years that has brought us to this point. The teacher unions, by and large, have been part of the problem, certainly not part of the solution. But the bureaucracy, the school boards with bad ideas, educators with bad ideas, ed schools that don’t prepare teachers. You can make a very long list of what’s wrong, and it ends up including a lot of parents, too, I have to say.
Finn should add himself to the list. According to Finn, the problems in Florida minority schools have been “going on for 20, 30 years!” According to Finn, these problems began some time after 1973! But this is the kind of crackpot clowning that simply rules our discussions about schools. All hail Winerip and principal Leggett—invaders from a far-better planet.

The Daily update

SPINNING SIDNEY: We’ve seen it all in the past week as we’ve watched the mainstream press spin Sidney. We saw Janet Maslin’s know-nothing clowning, and Judy Woodruff’s open contempt. We saw Robert Dallek recommend Sidney’s book—and avoid describing what’s in it. At Time, Lev Grossman did tell you what Sidney says—and he said that his case was “surprisingly” strong. But some headline editor knew what to do. “Dull, predictable,” the Time headline said. Dallek excepted, they all knew the rules. Don’t buy this book, they all said.

But no one insulted you quite like Michael Isikoff and the eds at Slate who put him in print. The Whitewater hoax started eleven years back, and the mainstream press corps will still be damned before they’ll tell you what it entails. They’ve maintained a cover-up for the past many years; they have no intention of stepping back now. So they crab and cry about vile Jayson Blair—and deceive you about the real press corps hoaxes that defined a political decade. It’s almost impossible to convey or comprehend how corrupted their class has become.

Go back, read it again; read that paragraph Michael Isikoff wrote about Whitewater. A corrupted class now runs your discourse, and they will deceive you at every turn. And remember who puts this foofaw into print. What do you think? Do you think Jacob Weisberg didn’t know how foolish that paragraph was?