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Daily Howler: Are New York City's kids on the march? A skeptical scribe got it right!
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FOOLS FOR NON-SCANDAL (PART 1)! Are New York City's kids on the march? A skeptical scribe got it right! // link // print // previous // next //

HOW THE EDITORIALS SAVED CIVILIZATION: The lead editorial in this morning’s Post argues against the confirmation of Janice Rogers Brown. Early on, the editors discuss Brown’s views on something called “the Lochner era:”
WASHINGTON POST EDITORIAL (6/7/05): Justice Brown, in speeches, has openly embraced the "Lochner" era of Supreme Court jurisprudence. During this period a century ago, the court struck down worker protection laws that, the justices held, violated a right to free contract they found in the Constitution's due process protections. There exist few areas of greater agreement in the study of constitutional law than the disrepute of the "Lochner" era, whose very name—taken from the 1905 case of Lochner v. New York—has become a code word for judicial overreaching. Justice Brown, however, has dismissed the famed dissent in Lochner by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, saying it "annoyed her" and was "simply wrong”...
According to the editorial, Brown “has not just given provocative speeches; ‘Lochnerism-lite’ is a fairly good shorthand for her work on the bench, where she has sought to use the takings doctrine aggressively.” The editorial goes on to discuss a particular ruling by Brown.

Why is this editorial worth noting? Because again, the editorial discusses elementary factual matters which the Post news division has wholly ignored. If you run a Nexis check on “Brown AND Lochner,” there is only one previous Post reference—and that is another Post editorial, which appeared on May 25 (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/25/05). Nor can we find any sign that the specific decision discussed in today’s editorial has ever been referenced in a Post news report. Are the editors right about Brown and “the Lochner era?” Post readers have no way to say. In its news pages, the paper has simply refused to explore the background of Brown’s judicial career. Once again, if it’s actual information you want, you have to read the editorials. You’ll find maddening nuggets of information on matters the news pages have ignored.

Over and over, we’ve mentioned this peculiar aspect of modern press culture. Your modern press corps avoids information like the plague. What has Brown’s judicial career been like? What are the specific complaints about Brown? In its news pages, the Washington Post hasn’t stooped to discuss these matters. The very idea of information is kept alive in the Post’s editorials. Some day, scholars may recall this as the day when the editorials saved civilization.

BRINGING THE ETERNAL NOTE OF SILENCE IN: In today’s op-ed column, Richard Cohen reviews John Harris’ new book about the Clinton presidency, ruing the way it all turned out. In the gentleman’s final paragraph, his cohort’s requisite Code of Silence is in full effect:

COHEN (6/7/05): A certain sadness attaches to Harris's book. The personal story remains fascinating. But it is also a story about growth, about learning how to be president and finally getting it down just about when Ken Starr rose from the muck, with a blue dress for a shiny sword and an obsession for a duty. Had that not happened, we probably would have seen a convergence between the man and his performance—maybe a Palestinian-Israeli peace agreement, maybe a better coordinated and more robust effort to get bin Laden and, almost certainly, a passing of the baton to Al Gore. Blame it on Clinton, blame it on Starr or just blame the times. Either way and any way, it remains a gripping tale. Clinton may merely have survived but Harris, as you will see, has triumphed.
Why didn’t Clinton achieve more in the end? And oh yeah, another point: Why didn’t Clinton get to “pass the baton” to his anointed successor, Al Gore? Cohen gives us three basic choices: “Blame it on Clinton, blame it on Starr or just blame the times,” he says. But when it comes to the matter of Gore, how about blaming a different “times”—the one which is spelled with a capital T? And how about blaming the Washington Post? Why wasn’t Gore elected? Predictably, Cohen omits the obvious choice: Blame it on a Washington press corps which had lost its mind by the time of Clinton’s impeachment, then directed its fury at Gore. Cohen doesn’t provide this choice for an obvious reason. As we told you yesterday, it’s Hard Pundit Law: This cohort never tells you the truth about its own conduct and culture.

Why didn’t Clinton “pass the baton?” The history there is perfectly clear. By the fall of 1998, the insider press corps was deeply opposed to their sitting, vile president. Indeed, Sally Quinn made this fact quite clear in that essential November 1998 report (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/3/05). And five months later, when Clinton’s successor began his run for the White House, that cohort landed on his head like a gang of Salem-era harpies. By the fall of 1999, Cohen himself was writing inane, embarrassing columns about Gore’s troubling, funny clothes and about his disturbing adviser, Naomi Wolf. This had nothing to do with Ken Starr. It had something to do with Richard Cohen.

For any liberal who wants to explain the course of the past ten years, that piece by Quinn is monumentally important. In great detail, she described an insider press elite which had come to despise a sitting president. They took it over five months later on Gore. Everyone in Washington knows this. But they also know their cohort’s Hard Law: They must lie, right in your face, about their actual conduct.

WHO IS THE WASHINGTON PRESS CORPS: As part of its ongoing series on class, the New York Times dropped in on Nantucket this Sunday. Geraldine Fabrikant profiled the old whaling island, now a preserve of the new “hyper-rich:”

FABRIKANT (6/5/05): Once a low-key summer resort, Nantucket is rapidly turning into their private preserve, joining the ranks of other enclaves like Palm Beach, Aspen, the Hamptons and Sun Valley. Now that the hyper-rich have achieved a critical mass, property values have zoomed so high that the less-well-off are being forced to leave and the island is becoming nature's ultimate gated community.

''It's a castle with a moat around it,'' said Michael J. Kittredge, a 53-year-old entrepreneur who realized a fortune when he sold his Yankee Candle Company seven years ago for about $500 million. He was relaxing in the living room of his 10,000-square-foot house, which has a basement movie theater and a 2,000-bottle wine cellar. A separate residence a quarter-mile away houses staff members and a gym.

''Successful people want to be with other successful people,'' Mr. Kittredge said. ''Birds of a feather,'' he added. ''On Nantucket you don't feel bad because you want a nice bottle of wine. If you order a $300 bottle in a restaurant, the guy at the next table is ordering a $400 bottle.''

Fabrikant describes how the questing new hyper-rich interact with older Nantucket money. But uh-oh! “The single greatest change brought by the hyper-rich is in the cost of housing,” she writes. “The average Nantucket house price last year jumped 26 percent, to $1.672 million.”

Diplomatically, Fabrikant neglects to mention one group which is part of this questing new hyper-rich cohort—the gang of NBC News honchos who have purchased cribs on the island. For example, Nantucket’s the place where Tim Russert goes to write his books about being from Buffalo. And to this gang, $1.672 million is peanuts. When Chris Matthews bought last year, his new home cost $4.4 million.

In today’s Times, a letter writer rues the “flush of envy” he felt when he read Fabrikant’s report. But readers! Would he really swap his world for the foppist values of a Chris Matthews? “Simplify, simplify,” Thoreau wrote, from the woods. “Sell your clothes—but keep your thoughts.” Long ago, Matthews sold his thoughts so he could primp, pose and preen on the island.

Oh by the way, we almost forgot—according to Howard’s Kurtz’s report in yesterday’s Post, some members of Matthews’ cohort make so much money that they are now “in the upper middle class!” (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/6/05.) Remember this cohort’s one hard law—they simply never tell you the truth about the real ways of their cohort.

IN PRAISE OF MIKE TOMASKY: Finally, all praise to the Prospect’s Mike Tomasky for mentioning Matthews by name in this piece. Liberals simply have to start naming, by actual name, the foppish tribe that is selling their interests. Atrios praises Tomasky, a superlative guy, for this piece. At THE HOWLER, we roundly join in.

Special report—Fools for non-scandal!

PART 1—HERSZENHORN GETS IT RIGHT: Our analysts fell out of their beanbag chairs when they read last Thursday’s New York Times. David Herszenhorn was typing a tale which seemed quite typical. The whole thing started like this:

HERSZENHORN (6/2/05): New York City public school students achieved strong gains on the citywide reading and math tests this year. They were led by fifth graders, who posted extraordinary increases in the face of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg's blunt threat to make them repeat the grade if they did poorly on either exam.

Mr. Bloomberg said the results proved that his decision to hold failing fifth graders back, ending the practice of social promotion, had been effective, raising achievement.

Snore! We’ve read the story a thousand times over the course of the past thirty-five years. Urban kids show vast improvement! Local official says it’s all due to him! Indeed, if urban kids had really “shown strong gains” half as often as we’ve seen it proclaimed, that achievement gap we all lament would have reversed itself long ago. Suburban kids couldn’t get into college! There would be two groups of kids in the Ivies—the Bloods, and their rivals, the Crips.

Here at THE HOWLER, we don’t have the slightest idea whether Gotham kids achieved more this year. But because we’ve been sentient for the past thirty-five years, we know enough to be very skeptical when we read about “strong gains” in test scores. We know that school systems often cheat in pursuit of those pleasing scores. And we know that mainstream journalists never ask the obvious questions in the face of such scores.

But uh-oh! Herszenhorn reversed all that with a truly remarkable report. After describing the reported scores gains, he startled our analysts, saying this:

HERSZENHORN: Skeptics were quick to raise many questions, including whether this year's tests were easier and whether the schools spent too much time on exam preparation at the expense of subjects like history, science and art.

Among the critics were some of Mr. Bloomberg's political rivals.

C. Virginia Fields, the Manhattan borough president and a Democratic candidate for mayor, asked whether the results might have been raised by excluding low-performing students from taking the test, or through other maneuvers, and she said she wanted further analysis of the results.

''Any time we can show increase in terms of scores or academic achievement among our students, that is certainly a good thing,'' she said. ''But I think it is also important both for the public and all of us to understand exactly what is happening.''

Councilwoman Eva S. Moskowitz, a Manhattan Democrat and chairwoman of the City Council Education Committee, issued a statement expressing similar caution.

''The scores are encouraging, and if they represent true educational gains, then that's great,'' she said. ''But, because this is an election year, the mayor will be accused of manipulating the scores, and I think that he and the chancellor should immediately release the methodology and data that they used to satisfy themselves that this year's test is comparable to last year's.''

Say what? “Skeptics were quick to raise many questions?” When have you ever seen that in a report of this type? Yes, major systems have often arranged to “exclude low-performing students” from taking such tests, thereby driving up system-wide averages. And yes, major systems have often employed “other maneuvers” to achieve this result. What are some of those maneuvers? Over and over, major systems have simply taught their students the specific test items; have given their students too much time when they take the tests; have simply given their students the correct answers while the tests were under way; and have corrected test booklets after the fact, systematically changing wrong answers to right. And yes, major systems have often used bungled and bogus tests—tests which may have been deliberately gimmicked to produce higher average scores. All this—and more—has been documented, over and over and over again. But journalists normally flee such knowledge. In this instance, though, our new hero kept typing, going where few have gone before:
HERSZENHORN: Unlike the fourth- and eighth-grade statewide tests, which allow New York City's results to be compared with those of other large urban districts, there are no comparable results for the citywide exams. In fourth grade, New York City's gains this year were outpaced by Rochester, Yonkers and Syracuse.

Those results raised doubts that New York City's gains could be directly attributed to anything unique to the city, like Chancellor Joel I. Klein's choice of a reading program. The state results also showed a drop in performance by eighth graders, raising questions about whether gains in elementary school can be sustained through junior high.

This year's citywide exams were published by the same companies as last year's—Harcourt Assessment for reading and CTB/McGraw-Hill for math. But for security reasons, the city spent several million dollars to have the companies update the tests so that no questions were repeated from previous years.

Officials and representatives from the testing companies said that this year's tests were of the same difficulty level and that questions were rigorously field-tested on New York City students to ensure their validity.

Good grief! Somehow, Herszenhorn seemed to know that a journalist ought to be a skeptic on such matters. And he seemed to have some technical chops. He seemed to know that pleasing results from one testing program may be strangely AWOL on another. He seemed to know that problems often result when teachers know test questions in advance. And he gave the test companies their say too; he went on to quote them as they explained the way the new test had been fashioned.

We’ve followed this topic since 1971, and we don’t think we’ve ever seen a mainstream press report like this. Incredibly, Herszenhorn got many things right! Did Gotham kids really achieve more this year, the way the mayor so pleasingly says? We don’t know, but we do know this: We never take “strong gains” at face value. On the other hand, a “Manhattan Miracle” was clearly achieved in Herszenhorn’s surprising report. We’ve waited decades to see such reporting. Last Thursday, our analysts fell out of their beanbag chairs when David Herszenhorn incomparably got it right.

VISIT OUR INCOMPARABLE ARCHIVES: How widespread have cheating scandals been—and how clueless does the press tend to be on such matters? For one detailed report, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/19/01. For other reports on such subjects, enter “TAAS or Cannell or KIPP or NAEP or Lake Wobegon” into our whirring search engines.

TOMORROW—PART 2: “Scores soared in the early 1980's,” Herszenhorn writes. But does anyone believe them any more?