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Daily Howler: The mayor is rushing new books to the schools. Our question: Can schoolchildren read them?
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THE PROBLEM WITH BOOKS! The mayor is rushing new books to the schools. Our question: Can schoolchildren read them? // link // print // previous // next //
THURSDAY, AUGUST 9, 2007

FRUITCAKE IN AUGUST: Three cheers for the Huffington Post’s John Neffinger! On Wednesday, Neffinger posted this superlative piece about the way Hardball’s David Shuster “truth-squadded” Tuesday evening’s Democratic debate.

Neffinger posts videotape of Shuster’s absurd performance. But here’s one part of the ludicrous transcript. Shuster catches Clinton and Biden making “untruthful” statements:
SHUSTER (8/7/07): There were a few instances in this forum tonight where Democrats gave some untruthful descriptions of the Bush administration and the impact of administration policies on the nation. Watch.

CLINTON (videotape): Well, the first thing I would do would put somebody in charge who actually cared about the people of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.

BIDEN (videotape): We know how badly this president has ruined the country.

SHUSTER: The use of the word “ruin” is pretty amazing, Chris, because you think “ruin” is defined as “irreparable damage,” and for Joe Biden to say the nation is irreparably damaged—is ruined permanently—that is a bit of a stretch. And also, you can have arguments about whether it is right policy as far as rebuilding New Orleans and what they`re doing, but to say that the Bush administration doesn’t care about New Orleans, that’s a leap. [Shuster’s emphasis]

MATTHEWS: OK. Thank you, David Shuster.
There are no words for the inanity involved in calling those statements “untruthful.” But then, to watch Hardball in the past few nights is to be amazed by the intellectual standards of the modern mainstream “press corps.” For example, here is Matthews, introducing a segment on last evening’s program:
MATTHEWS (8/8/07): It’s time for tonight’s Hardball debate: Is Hillary Clinton a hawk or is she a dove? Jon Soltz is an Iraq War veteran with votevets.org. And Buzz Patterson is the vice chairman of Move America Forward, and a former military aid to President Bill Clinton. He is also the author of War Crimes.
Are we all third-graders now? Matthews, recently back from the beach, devoted an entire segment to the childish question of whether Clinton is “a hawk or a dove.” And as one guest, he included Patterson, one of the consummate, world-class crackpots of late-90s hate-Clinton politics. Here’s the clowning we got in return:
MATTHEWS: OK. Let’s go to Buzz Patterson. How do you see Hillary, hawk or dove?

PATTERSON: Hey, Chris! She is a dove in hawk’s clothing. I mean, I know her personally, worked for her for two years, with her husband from 1996 to 1998, and she is anything but a hawk. I mean, she wants to pull us out of Iraq. She voted for the war before she voted against the war, to coin a phrase from a previous candidate.

She will say anything she has to say, Chris, to get elected president. See, she is a pathological liar. She does not understand the military. I can speak first and foremost personally, knowing her intimately. She is not a hawk—she is anything but. She is a Wellesley College, socialist, anti-military anti-American.
Patterson knows Clinton intimately! But then, this particular fruitcake has been a crackpot screamer for the past decade. It’s an insult to every American—to our very democracy—when fools like this are put on the air. By the way, here was Matthews’ response to his guest. No, we’re not making this up:
MATTHEWS: How did you get that insight on her working? Were you her military attache or her husband`s military attache?
But then, why not let Patterson share his “insight” if Shuster’s nonsense defines the parameters of Hardball’s intellectual world?

Many libs fell in love with Shuster during the course of the Plame affair. Reason? Matthews took the pro-Plame view of this matter from the start; his anti-Bush Admin instincts were quite correct, and he did some good work on this topic. But whenever Matthews makes such a decision, his program tends to put its thumb on the scale concerning all relevant facts. Matthews and Shuster followed this practice in their treatment of the Plame matter, and some liberals loved them for it. But the sheer inanity of this program has been on vivid display all week, as Matthews tries to shake the sand of Nantucket out of his ears. Simply put, you no longer have a democracy when this type of arrant nonsense defines the public debate.

But then, Matthews has been a cable fruitcake for more than a decade now. No one worked harder—or more dishonestly—to send George W. Bush to the White House. The sheer inanity of his program has been on stunning display this week. Our thesis: This sort of thing is likely to happen any time a middle-class democracy has a multimillionaire press corps.

Meanwhile, again, three cheers for Neffinger. Read his piece. Look at his tape.

Slick Annie’s new toy: While we’re at it, note Patterson’s use of a new talking-point: Clinton “voted for the war before she voted against the war, to coin a phrase from a previous candidate.” But then, we noticed Anne Kornblut playing this game in Tuesday’s Post. Note how slick Annie is:
KORNBLUT (8/7/07): Much has been made of Clinton's slow rhetorical shift from authorizing the war in 2002 to attacking it now. Less scrutinized have been her maneuvers along the way to try to avoid the trap that befell Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) in 2004—being "for the war before he was against it," as his Republican rivals mocked.
Cute! To state the obvious, Kerry didn’t say he was "for the war before he was against it;" the clumsy statement for which he was mocked involved an $87 billion spending package, not the war itself. But so what? At some point, some of his “Republican rivals” may have phrased their mockery in the way Kornblut “quotes.” And darlings! This lets her invent a brainless new phrase. It can be used to drive “news reports”—and to mock Clinton in the kinds of childish ways our childish press corps loves best.

Last night, Patterson played the same rhetorical game. The liberal web should be on full notice: A new talking-point has come into play. It will be used—and used; and used—to elect a Republican president.

Update on Slick Annie: A Nexis search finds only one use of the phrase Kornblut put inside quotes. And surprise! It’s Kornblut’s own use, this Tuesday! In short, we can find no sign that any “Republican rival” ever mocked Kerry in the way Kornblut “quoted.” But so what? Slick Annie wanted a stupid new toy—and her editors let her invent one.

THE PROBLEM WITH BOOKS: Is there a textbook problem in the Washington schools? Here at THE HOWLER, we’ll guess that there is. But the textbook problem we have in mind isn’t mentioned in this news report, which received enormous play in Saturday’s Washington Post.

Let’s start with a bit of background about that Post report.

On Monday, July 30, new Washington mayor Adrian Fenty said that “half of D.C. public schools did not have all their required textbooks.” The books hadn’t yet been delivered to the schools, Fenty said. School was scheduled to start four weeks later. For the Post’s news report, just click here.

On Friday, August 3, Fenty joined his new schools “chancellor,” Michelle Rhee, for a tour of the District’s book warehouse, determined to learn how such an outrage could exist in a civilized nation.

On August 4, the Post gave this book tour enormous play. A large photo of Fenty-and-Rhee-on-the-prowl sat atop the paper’s front page. “Why Aren’t These Textbooks at D.C. Schools?” a large-print, bold-faced caption asked. Inside, on page one of the Metro section, the paper ran its murky account of the undelivered textbook problem. Another large photo of Fenty-and-Rhee appeared inside, on B2. (We can’t find the photos on-line.)

This was great exposure for Fenty and Rhee, who piously pledged that they’d never accept the inexcusable bungling their successors had left them. But is there a problem with D.C.’s textbooks? The Post’s report described an alleged textbook problem—a problem which may or may not exist. A second problem escaped the Post’s view. It may have escaped Rhee as well.

Let’s start with The Case of the Undelivered Textbooks, the alleged textbook problem which Fenty and Rhee were prepared to be photographed solving.

The news report, by Theola Labbé, described two different types of books. Before we proceed, let’s toss in one fact: There are 55,000 students enrolled in the District’s schools.

According to Labbé’s murky report, two different types of undelivered textbooks will soon bedevil the District’s students—undelivered “replacement books” and undelivered new textbooks. Labbé described these two alleged problems in the following passage:
Labbé (8/4/07): At the end of each academic year, students turn in textbooks to their teachers. If a book is lost or stolen, the school is responsible for ordering a replacement from the textbook office. About 1,000 replacement books are ordered annually, officials said.

This year, the majority of book orders— more than 375,000—are science and social studies books that are connected to new learning standards. In the spring, then-Superintendent Clifford B. Janey said those books had been received by the school system, and yesterday Rhee agreed.
That passage described two different problems. Let’s examine them in turn:

Replacement books. According to Labbé, only one thousand such books are ordered each year. In a system of 55,000 students, this seems like a remarkably minor problem. Indeed, if all these books await delivery, it shouldn’t be hard to accomplish the task. If forty such books get delivered each day, they’ll be there for opening day.

New book orders. Labbé’s report on new books is a bit unclear. But it seems that at least 375,000 new textbooks were received by the system last spring. Labbé doesn’t say how many of these new textbooks might already have been delivered to actual District schools. Are all the new textbooks still in the warehouse? There’s no way to tell from Labbé’s report. (For the record, it seems odd to think that a system with 55,000 students would order 375,000 new textbooks in just one year. This would be almost seven new textbooks for each of the District’s students.)

Will District schools face a textbook shortage when they open their doors this month? There’s no way to tell from Labbé’s report. It may be that the warehouse holds so many new books that they simply can’t get to the schools on time. Or this “problem” may have a Potemkin component. The Post’s photos showed Fenty and Rhee on-the-prowl; if they end up solving a “problem” that didn’t exactly exist, who has to be any wiser? And uh-oh! In this tape from the Washington City Paper, Rhee is shown at the warehouse, saying this about the new textbooks: “A lot of those did get out to the schools, but not everyone is complete again.” On the tape, Rhee seems to say that the “vast majority” of District schools will have these new textbooks on time.

Darn it! Even after the Post’s big splash, we don’t really know if the District’s schools are facing a problem with undelivered textbooks. But almost surely, there is a problem with those new books—a problem the Post didn’t mention. Here’s the real question: Once those textbooks reach the schools, how many kids will be able to read them? For example, are the new sixth-grade science textbooks written on sixth-grade reading level? If so, how many of DC’s deserving sixth graders will be able to read and learn from them?

If you’ve spent any time in a low-income school, this question might enter your head.It doesn’t seem to have occurred to Labbé. Has it occurred to the chancellor?
After all, Rhee came to her new job in DC with very limited experience (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/11/07, with links to prior reports). She spent only three years in the classroom, in her early twenties, mostly teaching second-graders. After that, she split from the Baltimore schools, never to work in the classroom again. Indeed, Rhee seems to have spent the next dozen years inventing pleasing, self-serving stories—claiming that “her outstanding success in the classroom earned her acclaim on Good Morning America and The Home Show, as well as in the Wall Street Journal and the Hartford Courant,” for example. (We can find no evidence of these reports.) And Rhee kept making implausible claims about her students’ amazing test scores—claims she oddly can’t document. But so what? Mayor Fenty bought her spiel (she came endorsed by Manhattan’s top swells) and the City Council lacked the guts to make her prove the things she had said. And now, the fearless leader is touring a warehouse and solving a problem which may not exist. As she does so, we can’t help wondering if she grasps that other potential problem.

We wrote on this topic long ago, in the Baltimore Evening Sun. Many deserving, low-income kids can’t read the textbooks their teachers hand them. They have to sit and pretend to read—just as Rhee may have dreamed up that “outstanding success.” But Rhee got rewarded for her pleasing tales; the kids will be damned to illiteracy.

Can Washington’s schoolchildren read their new textbooks? This question didn’t occur to Labbé. Having spent three years teaching second grade, Rhee may not have asked it either.

THE SHAPE OF THE POSSIBLE PROBLEM: We wrote about this general problem long ago, in the Baltimore Evening Sun, after a year of research tedium. We’ll bore you with the highlights again. But this is ugly stuff:
SOMERBY (2/9/82): [I]n grade after grade, for topic after topic, [Baltimore teaching] guides recommend textbooks which are clearly too difficult for most city students to work from—books which are completely inappropriate for children who may be several years below traditional grade level in reading.

In the first semester of fourth grade, for example, the two most commonly cited textbooks are Daniel Chu’s “A Glorious Age in Africa”—a textbook with a measured eighth-grade reading level—and Frederick King’s “The Social Studies and Our Country”—Laidlaw’s sixth-grade textbook.

Few fourth graders anywhere will be able to profit from textbooks as difficult as these. In an urban system like Baltimore’s, this selection is particularly surprising—and dooms any attempt to teach the social studies curriculum in a rigorous, systematic way.
As we’ve said, few systems will have courses of study as problematic as Baltimore’s was at that time. But as we continued, we described the way the nation’s poor readers often get poorer. This will happen in D.C.’s schools this year if kids can’t read their new textbooks:
SOMERBY: The results of this situation are all too predictable. Baltimore teachers find it difficult—indeed, impossible—to find readable textbooks with which social studies and science can be taught to their numerous below-level readers. The result may be that such children are not taught social studies and science at all.
At the Post, they worried hard: Will the books get to the school on time? They failed to ask a more basic question: When the books get to the schools, will anyone be able to read them?

Final note, to the reader: As a rational person, you will assume that this problem (which you never see discussed) must have been addressed long ago. Surely, you will think, the nation’s school systems aren’t handing books to children who can’t read them! And as you think this, you make a mistake: You picture a rational world, not the world which really exists—the world in which upper-class educational elites ride herd over low-income schools, pretending to address their problems. A world in which a new chancellor can waltz into Washington’s schools, with no one insisting that she support the implausible things she has endlessly said.

We know, we know—it doesn’t sound possible. For ourselves, we’ll await the Post’s report about those textbooks’ “readability”—the report that will never be done.

WHAT YOU HAVE TO KEEP IN MIND: What basic problem are we discussing? Once again, we offer this (overstated) formulation from the Center for American Progress:
CENTER FOR AMERICAN PROGRESS: Young low-income and minority children are more likely to start school without having gained important school readiness skills, such as recognizing letters and counting...By the fourth grade, low-income students read about three grade levels behind non-poor students.
In reality, that isn’t true of all low-income students, or even of most low-income kids. But inside the District’s struggling schools, many deserving low-income kids are years below “grade level” in reading. Did the District buy books that these children can read? Or did the District buy unreadable books, then hurry to get them into the hands of the children who simply can’t read them?

GILLIGAN’S WAREHOUSE: Naughty! And with a hint of Gilligan’s Island! Paul Klonsky remembers a well-known Chicago super who staged this same three-hour tour.

DUST TO DUST: All reports of the warehouse tour stress the dust which was found on the books. But if the District orders extra “replacement books” and keeps them warehoused until they’re needed (perhaps several years later), why should anyone be surprised if dust is found on their shrink-wrapped packaging? For that matter, if the new science books reached the warehouse in April, why shouldn’t they have some dust?

Don’t ask! Outraged editors led with the dust in yesterday’s thundering editorial.

Final note: In today’s Post, we get some good news:
MORENO (8/9/07): D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee said yesterday that most of the District's public schools will start the academic year this month stocked with required textbooks, although more than half of the schools lack the requisite number.

It was less than a week ago that Rhee and Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) led reporters through the school system's book warehouse and said half the schools might open without books. She struck a different tone yesterday.

"We feel very, very confident we will be able to meet the needs of the vast majority of our students when school starts," Rhee said at a groundbreaking ceremony for the $58.5 million renovation of Alice Deal Junior High School in Northwest D.C.
“She struck a different tone,” the Post said. But as you can see on that City Paper tape, that’s exactly what Rhee said last week, when she toured the book warehouse.