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Print view: A remarkable tape from 1997 shows us the shape of our world
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IN LIEU OF LIBERAL POLITICS! A remarkable tape from 1997 shows us the shape of our world: // link // print // previous // next //
TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 21, 2010

The insults of the high professorial class: Over the weekend, observers mocked the complaints of an “already-infamous whining Chicago [law] professor who appears to be near the 99th percentile but feels poor.” The professor in question seems to have a household income around $450,000 per year—but he feels that he and his wife just can’t afford Obama’s proposed (modest) hike in the marginal tax rate.

Above, we were quoting Paul Krugman; to start exploring this topic, click here.

Brad DeLong and many others have battered this pampered professor around. Today, we’ll suggest that you consider the world-view of a second high-ranking professor—Professor Susan Engel, “a senior lecturer in psychology and the director of the teaching program at Williams College.” Engel wrote this op-ed column in yesterday’s New York Times.

For starters, we will assume that Engel is a good, decent person. In her head shot, she displays a bright, winning smile; her research interests include such high-minded, all-encompassing topics as “children's play, teaching and learning in schools, and the development of curiosity” (click here). She graduated from Sarah Lawrence in 1980; she “has taught all ages from preschool through graduate school, most recently at Williams, Smith and Bennington Colleges” (click this).

She has also written an op-ed column which strikes us as insultingly other-worldly—one of the worst such columns we’ve ever read in the Times. People who are upset with the attitudes of that Chicago law professor might also consider Professor Engel’s well-intentioned column.

Like so many of her class, Engel just hates all that standardized testing! Without question, there are many flaws with the way the public schools conduct such testing programs today. But we were struck by Engel’s opening paragraph, which didn’t seem to be describing the world as it exists. We’ll include the column’s rather incoherent headline, which the professor may not have written:

ENGEL (9/20/10): Scientifically Tested Tests

As children, teachers and parents sprint, slink or stumble into the new school year, they also find themselves laboring once again in the shadow of standardized tests. That is a real shame, given that there are few indications that the multiple-choice format of a typical test, in which students are quizzed on the specific formulas and bits of information they have memorized that year, actually measures what we need to know about children’s education.

The children are laboring once again in the shadow of standardized tests! But is it true that, in a typical standardized test, “students are quizzed on the specific formulas and bits of information they have memorized that year?” In most grade school reading tests, children are asked to read various types of written materials and answer various types of questions about them. When are they asked about “the specific formulas and bits of information they have memorized that year?” We were puzzled by that description, and our puzzlement only grew as the professor continued:

ENGEL (continuing directly): There is also scant evidence that these tests encourage teachers to become better at helping individual children; in fact, some studies show that the tests protect bad teachers by hiding their lack of skill behind narrow goals and rigid scripts. And there are hardly any data to suggest that punishing schools with low test scores and rewarding schools with high ones improves anything. The only notable feature of our current approach is that these tests are relatively easy to administer to every child in every school, easy to score and easy to understand. But expediency should not be our main priority when it comes to schools.

The professor turns up her nose at the fact that standardized tests are “relatively easy to administer to every child in every school, easy to score and easy to understand,” though these are remarkably important characteristics of these tests (more below). But we were most struck by the highlighted passage. Are annual standardized tests mainly designed for the purpose of “punishing schools with low test scores and rewarding schools with high ones?” Such clatter sounds good to certain types of Western Massachusetts ears. But is that what transpires in the actual world?

We’ll admit it: We don’t know when we’ve read a column which seemed so disengaged from the world—disengaged in ways which made us think of that Chicago professor’s disengagement. Having quickly established her straw man, Professor Engel is soon imagining a loftier, better world. In this world, lofty “child development experts” replace the concerns of the hoi polloi, testing for things that really matter:

ENGEL (continuing directly): Instead, we should come up with assessments that truly measure the qualities of well-educated children: the ability to understand what they read; an interest in using books to gain knowledge; the capacity to know when a problem calls for mathematics and quantification; the agility to move from concrete examples to abstract principles and back again; the ability to think about a situation in several different ways; and a dynamic working knowledge of the society in which they live.

This task is not as difficult as one might think. In recent years, psychologists have found ways to measure things as subtle as the forces that govern our moral choices and the thought processes that underlie unconscious stereotyping. And many promising techniques already used by child development experts could provide a starting point for improving school assessments.

For instance, using recordings of children’s everyday speech, developmental psychologists can calculate two important indicators of intellectual functioning: the grammatical complexity of their sentences and the size of their working vocabularies (not the words they circle during a test, but the ones they use in their real lives). Why not do the same in schools? We could even employ a written version, analyzing random samples of children’s essays and stories.

Perhaps grudgingly, Professor Engel is willing to test children for “the ability to understand what they read”—but she can imagine testing the youngsters for so much more! (We can even test the children to see if they have “a dynamic working knowledge of the society in which they live!”) Why, developmental psychologists can even use recordings of children’s speech to “calculate two important indicators of intellectual functioning: the grammatical complexity of their sentences and the size of their working vocabularies!”

“Why not do the same in schools?” the professor asks. The answer to that question seems rather clear—but by now, this extremely high-minded professor is imagining wonderfully pretty outcomes. If you’re living in the real world, try to believe that she wrote this—and that the New York Times published it without editorial challenge:

ENGEL: When children recount a story that they have read or that has been read to them, it provides all kinds of information about their narrative skill, an essential component of literacy. We could give students a book and then have them talk with a trained examiner about what they read; the oral reconstruction could be analyzed for evidence of their narrative comprehension.

We could have children talk with a trained examiner; the oral reconstruction could be analyzed for evidence of their narrative comprehension! But where would all these “trained examiners” come from? Who would guarantee the success of their training? And who would pay for these trained examiners, who would listen to children one at a time? Such questions don’t intrude on this fairyland column—though at this point, a serious person might begin to understand the advantage provided by tests which are “relatively easy to administer” and “relatively easy to score.”

Duh. At Sarah Lawrence, Bennington, Williams and Smith, pretty things can be imagined. But in the real world, costs obtain, and so do real concerns—about the skill of “examiners” trained by the likes of Engel, to cite just one example. Engel imagines a fairyland in which lofty people of her high class test for the things which really matter. But when we read her two penultimate paragraphs, we wondered how long it has been since Engel encountered that world:

ENGEL: Of course, these new assessments could include some paper-and-pencil work as well. But that work would have to measure students’ thinking skills, not whether they can select a right answer from preset options. For instance, children could write essays in response to a prompt like, “Choose something you are good at, and describe to your reader how you do it.” That would allow each student to draw on his area of expertise, show his ability to analyze the process, describe a task logically and convey real information and substance. In turn, a prompt of, “Write a description of yourself from your mother’s point of view,” would help gauge the child’s ability to understand the perspectives of others.

Finally, we don’t need to exhaustively track every child every year in order to monitor how schools are doing. Just as researchers often use a randomly selected group to provide a window onto the larger population, we could test only carefully gathered representative samples from all the classes within a few grades. We would still get an empirical snapshot of a school, while freeing up students and teachers to do more meaningful work.

We’ll be honest: As someone who taught for years in the Baltimore schools, we were struck by the language of that proposed “prompt,” in which children are asked to “choose something you are good at,” thus “allow[ing] each student to draw on his area of expertise.” What a pretty notion! Unfortunately, many kids who reach the fifth grade no longer believe they’re good at anything; this is a lesson they’ve painfully drawn from years of frustration and failure. (In a tougher mood, one could say that this is a lesson they have been painfully taught.) We were struck here by Engel’s lofty language, but we were appalled by what came next, when Engel rolled her eyes at the idea of “track[ing] every child every year.”

It’s true, of course—we don’t need “to exhaustively track every child every year in order to monitor how schools are doing.” If we only want to monitor schools (or school systems), we can do as good a job, perhaps a better job, by testing samples of students. But each of those individual children belongs to some individual parent or grand-parent. Especially in low-income settings, schools and school systems will endlessly lie to those parents about those children if they aren’t forced, on an annual basis, to provide some sort of objective measure of the child’s basic skill at the basic processes of basic subjects like reading and math. Something like that has recently occurred in the state of New York’s non-scandal scandal, a scandal with which lofty people like Engel don’t dirty their beautiful minds.

Do you recall the following moment, recorded by reporter Karen Zraick in the New York Times? (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/23/10.) Zraick recorded a tumultuous meeting after the state of New York admitted that its statewide tests had been producing inflated, fraudulent test scores in recent years. Deceived parents shouted at Joel Klein, chancellor of the New York City schools:

ZRAICK (8/17/10): The upheaval began after Mr. Klein, among others on the stage, said that despite the drop in this year's scores after the state recalibrated its standardized exams, students citywide were still making substantial progress, based on graduation rates and other data.

In response, a panelist, Patrick Sullivan, moved to open the floor to public comments about test scores. Though a second panelist, Anna Santos, seconded the motion, it was denied by the chairman, David C. Chang, who pointed out that time for comments had been allotted after scheduled business.

With that, the crowd erupted into boos and chants of ''Let the parents speak.''

''Where is the accountability?'' asked Evelyn Feliciano of West Tremont, in the Bronx, who said her son's scores had dropped drastically.

Evelyn Feliciano lives in the Bronx; she hasn’t been to Williams. She had been told that her son was doing well in school. But now, the state of New York had thrown away years of fraudulent test scores, and it turned out that her son wasn’t doing that well after all! Note to Engel, up in Williamstown: Parents like that will always be lied to if there is no annual, individual measure. (Indeed, in this recent non-scandal scandal, we see that states will sometimes find ways to lie to these parents even when they’re required to test.) They will have no way of knowing if their child is making basic progress in basic skills. Rating schools can be an important task. But guess what? These low-income parents actually care about their own son or daughter!

In reaction, Professor Engel suggests that we could give Feliciano’s son a book to read, and then have him talk with a trained examiner. The oral reconstruction could be analyzed for evidence of his narrative comprehension.

Ain’t life in the high professoriate grand? At the University of Chicago, $450,000 isn’t enough. At Williams, we will simply ignore statewide frauds when it comes to conducting the most basic measures. Instead, we will imagine a prettier world, a world full of “trained examiners” who enact the wondrous vision of “child development experts.”

Evelyn Feliciano deserves basic information about her child. Engel, kicking her low-grade type to the curb, dreams of something much grander.

People who dream and imagine this way may well be very good people. But in their effect on the world, they can be quite destructive. They’re part of the modern American class arrangement, an arrangement built in the past forty years, an arrangement which supports the rule of the top one percent of the top one percent. The New York Times is very eager to publish their consummate twaddle.

One last point: Liberals are angry at that law professor, because he earns too much money. We liberals care about money—but we won’t be discussing Professor Engel. You see, we liberals don’t care about low-income kids, and that is who Engel is mauling.

We liberals quit on black kids about 35 years ago. At roughly that same time, a massive rise in inequality was starting to form. This rise has led to the views of that Chicago professor—and to the lofty views of his social class-mate, who wrote that remarkable column.

Extra-credit essay question: In recent years, the state of New York conducted a massive fraud in its statewide testing program. Have you seen a single professor write even one word about that matter? What does their silence tell us?

Special report: In lieu of liberal politics!

PART 1—E. J. DIONNE’S SILLY QUESTION (permalink): A remarkable piece of videotape has surfaced in the wake of Christine O’Donnell’s nomination. Somewhat predictably, we liberals have failed to notice the more remarkable part of the tape.

We refer to an episode of Bill Maher’s Politically Incorrect program from March 1997. To watch two full segments from the program in question, you can just click here.

(Full disclosure: We ourselves guested on this program four times, rather clearly distinguishing ourselves as Bill’s best, favorite guest.)

Semi-predictably, we liberals have thrilled to this program’s first segment, in which O’Donnell engages in sexy sex talk. But good lord! For those who would understand modern politics, the second segment is much more instructive. In this deeply demented segment, Maher raises the question of Bill Clinton’s possible impeachment, saying that, like Nixon before him, Clinton “has FBI files that he shouldn’t have gotten.” (Billy! Bill! Billy! No!)

Once again: This program aired in May 1997, eight months before the Lewinsky matter broke in the national press.

The invitation to talk about Clinton touched off a remarkable tumult. Leading the chaos was Republican nitwit Star Parker, though actor Rick Shroder embarrassed himself badly during this sad seven minutes. (Avert your gaze when he speaks.) After only 56 seconds, Shroder says, “I think Clinton could be impeached for several different reasons”—and Parker takes over from there. By the 1:25 mark, she is saying, “I think he’s a Communist, I really do,” referring to former Democratic fund-raiser John Huang. By 3:30, she is talking about arms dealers in the White House—and she refers to Vince Foster’s death for the first of two times. Before the segment is done, Parker is screeching that the Chinese government “is going to be making our airplanes, while at the same time they are buying Long Beach Naval Base.” (The alleged loss of CIA files was also part of her rumination.) As the session nears its end, Parker, Shroder and O’Donnell are excitedly talking over each other about a certain late-term abortion procedure.

In our view, Al Franken was a hero of the 1990s. But to see a liberal approach which failed quite badly during this era, just watch his attempt to repel these three true-believers with a series of jibes and jests.

Another thread is worth mentioning. At the 2:30 point, the deeply pitiful Shroder recites a script which would become historically important:

SHRODER (5/97): The fact is, Clinton’s a compulsive liar. It all started with, “I didn’t inhale, I didn’t inhale.” He will do anything, say anything, to get his neck out of trouble.

Bill Clinton, a compulsive liar, will do and say anything! Shroder had the script down cold, as would many others like him. Two years later, in March 1999, the mainstream press corps redirected this script in its pursuit of Clinton’s preferred successor, Candidate Gore. They would repeat Shroder’s script for the next two years, sending George Bush to the White House.

Al Gore will do and say anything! They yelled it for two solid years.

This program was taped in May 1997, a mere four months into Clinton’s second term. The liberal world largely sat and started as this lunacy unfolded—with Bill, our own long-time favorite, tickling the keys with that talk about Clinton-as-Nixon. When the lunacy was later transferred to Gore, the liberal world continued to stare—except for the many powerful liberals who actively worked to advance this sick war.

For those of you who may not recall what the Clinton-Gore era was like, this seven-minute tape may serve as a potent refresher. For those who never knew what this era was like, let this tape serve as your primer.

And no—the lunacy didn’t begin with talk about Obama’s birth. (For the record, O’Donnell is much less nutty in this segment than the aggressively stupid Parker or the painfully pitiful Shroder.)

Yesterday, we watched this tape, then read this column by E. J. Dionne. Politely, Dionne kept his “liberal” trap shut tight all through the Clinton-Gore years, as President Clinton, then Candidate Gore, were savaged by the nuts of the world, and by his mainstream press colleagues. Today, he writes a column in which he proudly asks the world’s most clueless political question. In this column, Dionne announces that he doesn’t understand what that past era’s lunacy wrought.

In his column, Dionne is trying to understand President Obama’s current tax proposal. Obama has proposed extending most of the Bush tax cuts. Why doesn’t he propose extending his own tax cuts, Dionne asks—the tax cuts he himself created as part of the stimulus package? As he starts, Dionne tracks his question to John Podesta:

DIONNE: John Podesta, president of the Center for American Progress and White House chief of staff under President Bill Clinton, noted the Obama tax cuts also expire at the end of this year: "I don't understand why we're only talking about extending George W. Bush's tax cuts, which are heavily skewed to help the wealthiest Americans, yet no one's discussing President Obama's cuts, which are exclusively focused on middle-class families."

I don't understand it, either. The stimulus included not only the broad Making Work Pay tax cut that gave most families an $800 refundable tax credit but also the child tax credit and the earned-income tax credit, which were especially helpful to lower-income families.

If the child tax credit isn't extended, 7.6 million children who get the benefit through their families would lose it entirely, and the credit would be reduced for an additional 10.5 million children. The biggest losses, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, would be among families earning $12,850 to $16,333, many of which include a parent working full time for minimum wage. Also set to expire are expansions of the earned-income tax credit that have helped working families that include 14.9 million children.

E. J. doesn’t understand it! The Bush tax cuts are skewed to the wealthy. The Obama tax cuts are skewed to the middle-class—and to the poor, though Dionne won’t say the word. So why would Obama propose Bush’s cuts? E. J. just doesn’t understand!

As he closes, Dionne says again that he doesn’t get the president’s strategy. Let’s quote him again, so we can see that Dionne has truly become the world’s self-confessed Dumbest Man:

DIONNE: Pelosi, at least, finally started talking late last week about the need to extend the Obama tax cuts. And you have to hope that Senate Republicans will let the jobs-fund extension through, since it's hard to think of a more Republican approach to alleviating poverty.

But you also have to ask why Democrats didn't try long ago to move any of these items to the center of the debate. Why cede so much attention to the ideas of George W. Bush?

Why cede attention to Bush’s ideas? The question answers itself—unless you’re a man like E. J. Dionne, a man who refused to fight in the Clinton-Gore years, when the lunacy on display on that Bill Maher tape took control of the political and journalistic worlds, producing Bush’s ascension to power.

Unless you’re a man who won’t explain where that lunacy left us.

Simple story: American discourse was stone-cold nuts even by May 1997, when that Politically Incorrect program aired. By the time that remarkable tape was made, stone-cold loons like Parker and Shroder were screeching and yelling for Clinton’s head. In March 1999, with impeachment defeated, they and the scripted hacks of the “mainstream press corps” would start demanding the head of Gore. The loud noise heard on that old Maher tape announced the death of anything like a liberal politics. It explains why Obama is running with Bush’s ideas, not with ideas of his own.

Why would Obama push Bush’s ideas? Duh! Only a fool, or a press corps Potemkin, would feel the need to ask. Tomorrow, we’ll spell out the answer just a bit more—and we’ll start to see how liberals campaign in lieu of a liberal politics.

Tomorrow—part 2: What happens when liberals lack politics