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THE SHAPE OF POTEMKIN DISCUSSION! The Washington Post praised the PG schools—and presented a phony discussion: // link // print // previous // next //
TUESDAY, JULY 12, 2011

Hacking the queen/Who needs basic facts: Good grief! Were British tabloids hacking Queen Elizabeth? If so, they created a wonderful emblem of the breakdown in journalistic procedures which mark the current age.

But then, that breakdown is all around. Consider some hopeless examples.

In yesterday’s Washington Post, Robert Samuelson wrote a column for the ages. A lazy type of modern journalism must always insist on a basic premise: Both sides are equally guilty of X! Yesterday, Samuelson may have produced the dumbest example of this script we have ever seen.

Grover Norquist won’t allow any revenue increases of any kind, Samuelson noted. Whatever you think of Norquist’s stance, it’s thoroughly uncompromising. And Norquist plays a powerful role in modern Republican politics.

Samuelson went on to claim that Norquist engages in “deception” in the way he promotes his anti-tax views. For our money, Samuelson’s claim of “deception” was extremely weak. But by the tenets of Hard Pundit Law, this meant that Samuelson needed a match on the left.

Who has engaged in “deception” on the left? In a hopeless piece of work, Samuelson picked Robert Greenstein:

SAMUELSON (7/11/11): But let’s be fair. Deception is bipartisan. Liberal groups often misleadingly play down how much burgeoning spending on the elderly threatens higher taxes or deep cuts in other programs. You can't understand how we got in the budgetary soup without seeing the parallel evasions of left and right.

A good example is the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. It has 25 federal budget experts and is a widely respected source of analysis, although it's also openly liberal in advocating social spending for the poor and the elderly. But the center has never—despite its name—presented a fully balanced budget to show how it would choose among competing interests.

Asked about this, Bob Greenstein, the center's longtime head, said in an e-mail that he's been "reluctant to develop comprehensive budget plans," arguing that "we do not have expertise in all parts of the budget"—defense, for instance. This is weak; no one has expertise in all parts of the budget. The real reason is political expediency. Social Security and Medicare are too popular to assail. By shunning budget balancing, Greenstein spares himself having to make major Social Security and Medicare cuts or supporting the stiff tax increases needed to pay for them.

Whatever you think of Norquist’s stance, it’s completely uncompromising—and it drives a good deal of Republican politics. Samuelson matched Norquist with Greenstein, complaining that Greenstein has never “presented a fully balanced budget.” Our question: Does Greenstein even support the need for “a fully balanced budget?” As far as we know, most liberal economists do not. In the current situation, they want to get deficits under control. But they don’t think that deficits must be eliminated.

Don’t liberal economists generally think that modest deficits are a good thing?

Samuelson’s claim that Norquist engages in “deception” strikes us as extremely weak; his matching claim about Greenstein may be even dumber. But good god, this is horrible work! Perhaps the nation is better off when the New York Times lets Maureen Dowd prattle on about Liz and Dick!

Samuelson’s piece struck us as hopeless. But consider the nonsense which has emerged in the past few days from the hopeless and pitiful pseudo-liberal web site, TPM.

Can the people at TPM be this dumb? They have offered endless, inane reports about the deeply troubling way Paul Ryan drank some expensive wine on one recent occasion. (For one example, click this.) The sheer stupidity of this “reporting” should be apparent to all—as should the fact that this type of “reporting” is designed to excite us gullible rubes, giving us a tribal thrill and helping us get very angry. But good grief! Paul Krugman, the liberal world’s MVP, has now made two snarky references to this brain-dead pseudo-issue.

This morning, on page A13, Ezra Klein presents some of the basic facts which inform the ongoing budget debate. As we’ve noted, these basic facts have not appeared on our nation’s major front pages as we slide toward a possible debt ceiling debacle. We’ll guess that most Americans, whatever their political views may be, have never seen such basic facts discussed or reported at all.

For the record, Ezra’s logic is weak in several places today, even as he presents basic facts. But across the pond and over here, a culture’s elites have lost their minds. Intellectual procedures lie in ruins. As in the most destructive moments in human history, tribal poo-flinging is all.

Across the pond, they’re hacking the queen! In our view, it’s a wonderful emblem of the general breakdown which may send us all to the deep.

Special report: Who's flunking now!

PART 2—THE SHAPE OF POTEMKIN DISCUSSION (permalink): What do we mean when we say that our “press corps” tends to create Potemkin discussions? A “Potemkin” discussion would be a fake discussion (click here), not unlike the discussion Joel Klein created in the Washington Post just last month.

Who is Joel Klein? Until last year, Klein was chancellor of the New York City schools under Mayor Bloomberg. As such, he became known around the country as a leading “education reformer.” Last year, after a major statewide testing scandal—a scandal which wasn’t treated as same—Klein left his post and took a job working for Rupert Murdoch.

Last month, the Post enlisted the fraudulent fellow to explore his brilliant vision of education reform. Klein’s piece appeared on the June 12 op-ed page. It included this Potemkin piddle, in which he marveled at an outcome which wasn’t shocking at all:

KLEIN (6/12/11): So what drives this new generation of [education] reformers? In contrast to the unions, bureaucrats and other predictable apologists for the failed status quo, they believe our schools can do a whole lot better than they are doing, especially for poor kids growing up in challenged families. Sure, educating children from difficult circumstances is often much harder, but the notion that schools can get much better results with those same kids than they're now generally getting is no longer a matter of abstract debate. It's now established fact.

Consider the study released last month of graduates from the original KIPP charter schools in New York and Houston who were followed for a decade after eighth grade. Given their demographics—95 percent black and Latino, 85 percent living in poverty—these young people had an expected college graduation rate below 10 percent. Their graduation rate, however, was 33 percent, about four times their expected rate and the same as that of white students. In other words, the KIPP students essentially eliminated the achievement gaps with respect to race, ethnicity and poverty. What made the difference was the education they got at KIPP. There are so many examples like this that it's long past time to stop blaming educational failure on poverty and its attendant disadvantages.

You might give Klein a “gentleman’s D” for that second highlighted passage. But can a person of Klein’s background really be that dumb?

What’s so dumb about Klein’s presentation? According to Klein, a bunch of black and Hispanic kids attended KIPP charter schools in New York and Houston. Thirty-three percent ended up graduating from college; this exceeded the ten percent rate one would have expected for the broad range of black and Hispanic kids from their low-income backgrounds.

Assuming Klein’s numbers are correct, these kids outperformed the wide range of black and Hispanic kids from similar backgrounds. But these weren’t typical black and brown kids, pulled at random from their cities’ public schools. These were kids who volunteered to subject themselves to the highly demanding KIPP program.

As such, these kids were different coming in. It shouldn’t come as a major surprise when they outperform the norm.

We’re glad that these kids challenged themselves in this way; we’re happy that KIPP was there to drive them. But it shouldn’t be a major surprise when the more ambitious slice of some population does better than that population as a whole. Nor does it mean that all black and Hispanic kids from poverty backgrounds would prosper from the demanding KIPP program. It doesn’t tell us what would happen if all kids from similar backgrounds were sent to KIPP-style schools.

And most importantly, no: It doesn’t tell us that “it's long past time to stop blaming educational failure on poverty and its attendant disadvantages,” whatever that pile of words from this fraudulent hustler was ever intended to mean.

Anyone with an ounce of sense could see the flaws in Klein’s “reasoning.” But the Washington Post has been engaged for some time in creating these types of Potemkin discussions concerning “education reform.” We’re sorry to be the ones to tell you: But the big news orgs of our power elite seem to love these bogus discussions, which have a Potemkin feel.

How often does the Post play Potemkin? Consider the paper’s recent editorial about the Prince George’s County schools.

Prince George’s County is a large, majority-black Maryland county which borders DC to the northeast. According to Wikipedia, the county was named for Prince George of Denmark (1653–1708), husband of Queen Anne of Great Britain and brother of King Christian V of Denmark and Norway—but nobody seems to care about those royals any more. At the Post, the editorial board does seem to care about this county’s public schools—which can of course be used to show the wonders of Post-style “education reform.” On July 3, the editors wrote an editorial about the county’s new test scores, saying that these test scores show the county’s “reform”-fueled progress.

To read the whole editorial, just click here. We were most struck by the highlighted passage. It’s the work of a lazy, D-minus student—or of an A-plus propagandist:

WASHINGTON POST EDITORIAL (7/3/11): There was good news for Prince George's County in last week's release of student test scores. Elementary and middle school students showed significant improvement over last year in both reading and math. Even better news is that the gains are no aberration but part of a steady pattern of progress for the state's second-largest school system. The hard work that has gone into turning around Prince George's long-troubled schools is clearly paying off.

Results of the 2011 Maryland State Assessments were released Wednesday by state education officials, who trumpeted the continued improvement of Maryland schools. Statewide data showed elementary school reading nearing 90 percent proficiency as well as gains in middle school math. The standout performance, though, goes to the 127,000-student Prince George's system, which traditionally has trailed much of the state…

To be truly appreciated, the gains must be viewed against the backdrop of the past decade. Consider, for example, that in 2003, only 42.9 percent of elementary students were proficient in reading, compared with 81.9 percent in 2011; in middle school, there were 41.9 percent students proficient in reading in 2003, compared with 74.6 percent in 2011. Similar, dramatic gains were seen in students' mathematics performance. The progress is a credit to reforms started in 2002 when the state—fed up with the embarrassment that the school system had become—replaced the elected school board with an appointed body.

In fact, the gains in passing rates were fairly small in Prince George’s County this year, as you can see from reviewing the full editorial—but that’s neither here nor there. Reading the editorial, we were struck by the editors’ treatment of those large score gains since 2003—and by the way they attributed those gains to the “reforms” that began when the state replaced PG’s school board.

Has PG County improved the performance of its schools since 2003? We would assume that it has—that a lot of hard work by a lot of people has gone into that change. But passing rates have jumped all over the state of Maryland during that same period; in Baltimore City, another majority-black jurisdiction, passing rates have jumped in ways which rival the jumps in Prince George’s County. As they always do, the editors take those passing rates at face value, pretending that we’ve learned nothing about statewide testing in the eight years under review.

In this way, they earn the D-minus grade we would give to their lazy work.

Duh. Since 2003, a string of scandals have afflicted major testing programs around the nation—although you might not know that fact if you read the Washington Post. Just last year, the state of New York threw out years of rapidly improving test scores, acknowledging that its statewide tests had gotten easier during those years. (This is the major scandal in which the wonderfully clueless Joel Klein was involved.) If statewide tests gets easier down through the years, that state’s passing rates will of course improve—but the gains in passing rates may not reflect real gains in academic achievement.

Beyond that, there have been several massive cheating scandals in the past few years. One of those scandals took place in DC, right under the editors’ famously smell-no-evil noses.

People who care about public schools will be concerned by these situations. Journalists who care about public schools will work hard to explore their implications. The Washington Post has taken a different approach, an approach which is largely propagandistic. To this day, it has essentially never told readers about the scandal in the state of New York; as a result, readers won’t be inclined to wonder if something similar could have happened here. And last Saturday, its editors presented an absurdly misleading account of the amount of cheating which may have transpired in DC itself (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/11/11). This continued the newspaper’s general policy of deep-sixing cheating scandals.

Were Maryland’s statewide tests in 2011 as difficult as its tests in 2003? Like you, we have no earthly idea—in large part because the Washington Post has worked quite hard down through the years to avoid exploring such questions. (By normal standards of the testing industry, technical manuals should exist. In theory, they should settle such questions.) But then, the paper has also worked quite hard to avoid filling readers’ heads with knowledge about the problems of cheating. Last Tuesday, a major report by the state of Georgia described massive cheating on statewide tests in Atlanta’s schools over a number of years. The New York Times reported this major story in a stand-alone news report (click here).

The Washington Post did not. But then, what else is new?

We would assume that Prince George’s students really are doing better. We’d like to know how much better. But the Washington Post has worked quite hard to avoid the era’s biggest stories—and to avoid exploring their implications. But then, it has ever been thus among the laziest students.

In public schools, the less ambitious kids sit in the back of the class, trying to get by with the absolute minimum. In the case of the shiftless Post, lazy editors clown along, pretending to care about public schools, creating Potemkin discussions.

Tomorrow: Some liberal Potemkins

Thursday or Friday: As Atlanta burned