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Jonathan Chait rolled his eyes at Maddow, creating a crisis of competence
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A CRISIS OF COMPETENCE! Jonathan Chait rolled his eyes at Maddow, creating a crisis of competence: // link // print // previous // next //
MONDAY, JUNE 21, 2010

The Times, black kids and the latest scam: Let’s start by giving a bit of credit. In last Friday’s editorial, the New York times acknowledged a basic problem with high-stakes testing in public schools: Teachers and principals sometimes cheat to drive up their students’ test scores. (For the record, we’re talking about outright cheating here—not about “teaching to the test.”)

This isn’t some sort of theoretical problem. Outright cheating on such tests has been an obvious problem for decades, though newspapers like the Times and the Washington Post have worked hard not to notice.

To its credit, the New York Times has actually begun to report on this problem, as we’ve noted on several occasions. Last Friday, a miracle occurred—even the editors spoke! “The problem seems to be spreading since states began to evaluate teachers based at least in part on how well they improve student performance,” they wrote. At the end of their piece, the editors offered a sensible prescription. “States need to develop clear, well-publicized antifraud policies,” they sensibly wrote.

For the record, this need will be especially strong in any school system where teacher pay is tied to test results.

Has this problem been spreading in recent years? Like the editors, we don’t know. In their editorial, the editors discussed a Baltimore elementary school which suffered a recent cheating scandal. In their opening paragraph, the editors described what occurred:

NEW YORK TIMES EDITORIAL (6/18/10): The parents of children attending George Washington Elementary School in Baltimore were understandably outraged when they learned last month that someone at the school had altered thousands of answers on students’ 2008 state math and reading tests to raise their scores. Following a lengthy investigation, state education officials did exactly the right thing. They revoked the principal’s state teaching license and made clear that educators elsewhere could expect the same if they tampered with test results.

Most likely, the editors were a bit too kind in their recitation. In fact, George Washington Elementary had produced remarkable test scores for several years; the school had been widely praised for its brilliance and given a major national award. The fraud was documented in 2008 only because suspicious state officials conducted a belated investigation. In late May, the Baltimore Sun published several detailed reports about the state investigation and the principal’s forced retirement. But make no mistake—cheating episodes of this type have occurred for decades. We first consulted with this same Baltimore Sun on a similar (utterly ludicrous) situation back in 1971. We did several op-ed columns for the Sun on this topic starting in the late 1970s. (If memory serves, the Sun itself uncovered several similar frauds in the 1980s.)

Duh. Outright cheating has been a problem since at least the early1970s, when test scores began to be used for “accountability” purposes. Forty years later, the Times editors rise off their well-padded duffs and called for “anti-fraud policies” (for better security measures). But wouldn’t you know it?

In the same editorial, the editors committed their latest act of journalistic child abuse, largely aimed at black children.

After all these years, it’s hard to generate sufficient contempt for people who blunder this way.

What was wrong with the editorial? Let’s put aside the editors’ comments on the need “to ensure that poor and minority children are being taught to meet the same standards as their affluent and white counterparts.” Self-evident though that prescription may be, the editors don’t know what they’re talking about, though we’ll postpone that discussion for another day. The more blatant malpractice occurred in the following paragraph, where the editors continue describing the events at George Washington Elementary. They stress the remarkable progress which has occurred at the school thanks to unnamed “school reforms:”

NEW YORK TIMES EDITORIAL: George Washington Elementary, which serves mainly poor and minority children, has clearly benefited from school reforms. In 2003, about 35 percent of the children passed the state math test. In 2009—when the state monitored testing to prevent tampering—the pass rate reached an impressive 78 percent. One of the tragedies of the fraud is that it casts doubt on the honest achievements of hard-working children.

In a decent society, the incompetence displayed in that paragraph would constitute a firing offense.

What’s wrong with that presentation? For starters, there’s nothing much wrong with the editors’ data. It’s true! In 2003, about 35 percent of the kids at George Washington Elementary passed the state of Maryland’s math test for their grade (grades 3-5). It’s also true that the passing rate was (roughly) 78 percent in 2009. (In fact, the official Maryland “report card” for George Washington Elementary seems to say that the passing rate was 76.5 percent. Click here.)

To the clueless and the incompetent, that 2009 passing rate may sound quite good—“impressive,” the editors said. The rise from 35 percent to 78 percent may sound like a giant achievement. But in fact, that 76.5 percent passing rate isn’t especially “impressive” at all, unless we’re prepared to conclude that the math passing rate is now “impressive” all over the city of Baltimore. In fact, George Washington’s passing rates in reading and math are somewhat lower than the passing rates of Baltimore’s elementary school kids as a whole. And although George Washington’s kids are largely black and largely low-income, the school’s demographics are barely distinguishable from those of the city’s elementary schools on the whole.

That’s right! George Washington’s passing rate in math is actually somewhat lower than the Baltimore average. It isn’t clear how “impressive” that passing rate is, given the massive rise in passing rates displayed all over the state of Maryland during the period in question. Tomorrow, we’ll walk you through the data, making the type of bone-simple analysis any college freshman could perform after spending a week or two on these topics. For today, let’s repeat what we’ve already said: In a serious society, the intellectual sloth displayed in this Times editorial could constitute a firing offense.

So typical. Forty years later, the editors have finally denounced one type of scam. In the process, they may have fallen for another—for a type of semi-scam which has been widely discussed in the past several years. Simple story: The people who write these editorials simply refuse to develop minimal competence about issues involving low-income schools.. The contempt they display is aimed at black children, whose lives aren’t important enough to be analyzed competently.

Are George Washington’s kids really better in math than their peers in 2003? These data simply can’t answer that question—and low-income kids all over Baltimore are now passing the state’s math tests at these “impressive” rates. Journalists who gave a fig about low-income kids would have understood these issues by now. But then, it took the editors forty years to catch up with that other small problem.

People like this have contempt for black kids—until you hear them posture and preen about their own racial greatness.

Tomorrow: Where do passing rates come from?

All passing rates in the state: To peruse the state of Maryland’s official test scores, just click here, then continue clicking. Warning: A cosmic statistical groaner appears on this site when George Washington’s passing rates are compared to those of the Baltimore schools on a whole (click here). Thanks to this (systematic) groaner, it appears that GW is outperforming the typical Baltimore school. Sorry—that’s not true. More on this groaner tomorrow.

A CRISIS OF COMPETENCE (permalink): Last Wednesday, President Obama announced a major big deal—if you care about regular people. Obama announced a deal with BP, a deal he had clearly signaled in Tuesday night’s Oval Office address. According to the New York Times, “Four days of intense negotiations between the White House and BP lawyers allowed President Obama to announce Wednesday that the oil giant would create a $20 billion fund to pay damage claims to thousands of fishermen and others along the Gulf Coast.” This was big major colossal news, if you care about those affected.

The previous night, a string of liberals had savaged Obama after his Oval Office address. In fairness, there are plenty of questions to be asked about Obama’s handling of this disaster: Why didn’t the administration move faster to reform the disastrous Minerals Management Service? Has the administration done everything possible to facilitate a competent clean-up? Beyond that, there are obvious questions be asked about the administration’s approach to future energy policy. But the creation of the $20 billion fund was a major news event—a very major news event if you’re one of the people affected.

The pending announcement of this fund was fairly clear in Obama’s address. But, despite the pending achievement, there was little joy in liberal Mudville that night. On MSNBC, Obama was battered from stem to stern in the wake of his address. Often, the complaints and criticisms were embarrassingly inane (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/17/10).

The next night, the ego-maniacism fully kicked in on this increasingly hapless channel. Rachel Maddow gave her own “fake president address,” substituting her own brilliant judgments for those of the hapless Obama. It was all so simple, the way Rachel explained it! In response, fawning liberals locked their lips on the great pundit’s keister, praising her manifest brilliance. (To watch the fake address, just click here.)

Everything was going well, until major kill-joy Jonathan Chait piped up at his TNR blog.

Damn that Chait! Rolling his eyes at Maddow’s dumbness, he quoted this part of her “fantasy version” of the Oval address:

MADDOW (6/16/10): The United States Senate will pass an energy bill. This year. The Senate version of the bill will not expand offshore drilling. The earlier targets in that bill for energy efficiency and for renewable energy-sources will be doubled or tripled.

If Senators use the filibuster to stop the bill, we will pass it by reconciliation, which still ensures a majority vote. If there are elements of the bill that cannot procedurally be passed by reconciliation, if those elements can be instituted by executive order, I will institute them by executive order.

Sycophants had raced to announce Maddow’s greatness—the greatness found in such moving passages. It was good, solid, thrill-up-the-liberal-leg fun! Till Chait unrolled his wet blanket:

CHAIT (continuing directly): In reality, you can't pass any of the climate bill by reconciliation. Democrats didn't write reconciliation instructions permitting them to do so, and very little of it could be passed through reconciliation, which only allows budgetary decisions. Maddow's response is to pass the rest by executive order. But you can't change those laws through executive order, either. That's not how our system of government works, nor is it how our system should work.

If Maddow's speech had to hew to the reality of Senate rules and the Constitution, she'd be left where Obama is: ineffectually pleading to get whatever she can get out of a Senate that has nowhere near enough votes to pass even a stripped-down cap and trade bill.

“It may be nice to imagine that all political difficulties could be swept away by a president who just spoke with enough force and determination,” Chait continued. “I would love to eliminate the filibuster and create more accountable parties. But even if that happens, there will be a legislative branch that has a strong say in what passes or doesn't pass.”

Chait was quite polite this day. But in all candor, he was pretty much calling Maddow a dope.

Is Rachel Maddow some sort of a dope, as Chait was so plainly asserting? For the most part, we’re more struck by her vast stores of self-adoration, and by her sneering condescension for those who aren’t from her tribe. (Watching Maddow, we’ve also been struck, more than once, by what seems to be blatant dishonesty.) Maddow would score quite well on an IQ test. Beyond that, the “good Rachel” seems enormously capable of developing information and analyses, until the “bad Rachel’s” assorted bad instincts lead her astray.

For our money, Maddow put a bit of ego-maniacism on display in her “fake president address”—an address she delivered before a full mock-up of the Oval Office. But Chait came along the next day, and he threw a wet blanket on the proceedings. Maddow doesn’t know her aspic from her elbow, the gentleman basically said.

This morning, Ross Douthat is rolling his eyes at Maddow’s fantasy address in his New York Times column. Douthat hails from the center-right; Chait resides on the center-left. A person can imagine ways to defend Maddow’s fake address from the criticisms being lodged in these precincts. But we think it’s good that these questions are being asked, because last week’s Oval Office address produced a wave of embarrassing pseudo-liberal commentary. For our money, this commentary raised a basic question:

Isn’t it true that we liberals fail because, when you get to the leadership level, we tend to be blindingly dumb?

Tomorrow: Good God—King and Blow