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DON’T KNOW MUCH TRIGONOMETRY! Journalists don’t know squat about schools. For starters, let’s grade Richard Cohen: // link // print // previous // next //

Dumbing the liberal world way, way down: Rachel Maddow sometimes does very good work on particular topics. But we’ve rarely seen a major broadcaster who understands domestic politics so poorly—whose instincts are worse in this area.

Olbermann isn’t much better. As these know-nothings yammer, we liberals get dumbed to the ground. Consider the way Maddow continued to rail, last Friday night, about the decision to postpone a vote on tax rates until after November’s election.

To Maddow and Olbermann, this constitutes the world’s dumbest decision. Here’s a chunk of Maddow’s rant:

MADDOW (9/24/10): We’ve had some other late-breaking news today on what has all week long been a giant question mark about what Democrats are doing in terms of election strategy for this year.

There’s a huge list of things people disagree on in terms of Democrats’ political strategy for this election. Should there be a national messaging strategy? Or should Democrats just let Republicans do that and instead have individual Democrats compete locally district to district, essentially ignoring Washington? Should Democrats talk about the Tea Party movement and the extremism of this year’s crop of Republican candidates? Or should they pretend like that’s not happening and talk about their own agenda?

There is a lot of points on which reasonable people disagree this year about how Democrats ought to campaign and what is likely to be a very upstream election for them this year. But just about everybody agrees, for all those points of disagreement, just about everybody agrees that Democrats do have a winning issue on tax cuts.


The winning issue for Democrats here is that Republicans have said they don’t want anybody to get tax cuts. They don`t want anybody to get tax cuts unless rich people do—unless people making more than a quarter million dollars of a year get tax cuts too.

Honestly, their position is that they want to hold hostage lower tax cuts for the middle class, for anybody making less than a quarter mill, so that rich people can get their taxes cut. That’s their priority. And that is the definition of a winning issue for the Democratic Party, especially in a year with a really lousy economy.

So, for days now, it has been the biggest, stupidest question mark in politics. Why aren’t the Democrats hammering this home? Why aren’t the Democrats specifically forcing a vote on this tax cut thing before the election?

Maddow went on and on and on, but that was the gist of her plaint. “Nobody has any clue what Harry Reid is thinking,” she eventually said, “but Nancy Pelosi, at least in the House, has started to make electoral sense for Democrats.” This was a reference to the report that Pelosi might still schedule a vote on tax rates before the election, using very unusual rules requiring a two-thirds majority.

“Nobody has any clue” why Reid has postponed this vote—why he made this “stupidest” of all decisions. In fact, several people had provided such clues, just one hour earlier, on Countdown. Here is one such clue, as offered by Ezra Klein:

OLBERMANN (9/24/10): My further understanding is that the White House was, surprising enough, disappointed in the decisions by Senate Democrats to sort of mail this in, as I phrased it before—that they just want to campaign on the "you know how we`re going to vote on it, it doesn’t matter that we didn’t vote yet."

It’s dandy that the White House is being disappointed. But is there not some knocking of heads to be done in this situation? Are they really that impotent when it comes to the Senate moving at something slower than a snail’s pace?

KLEIN: Generally, they are! (Chuckles) I mean, Reid is concerned, again, that the worst thing for that to happen to all of them, right, is that they campaign against the extension of the rich tax cuts, hold the vote and lose it. And they lose it because Democrats move over—Ben Nelson moves over, a couple others move over.

Now, maybe that would happen, maybe it wouldn’t. But if Reid thinks there’s a chance, the White House’s leverage on him is quite weak.

That was Ezra’s clue. Meanwhile, this was Arianna’s clue, offered just a few minutes later, as part of a long, admittedly self-contradictory ramble:

HUFFINGTON (9/24/10): I think, right now, honestly, Keith, I don’t think they’re thinking beyond the election. I think that they’re so terrified of what may happen on Election Day that they’re worried about any step they take which may increase the chances that they will lose a particular seat, or lose the House, or maybe even lose the Senate.

According to Arianna, Democratic leaders were “worried about any step they take which may increase the chances that they will…maybe even lose the Senate.”

Why does a millionaire dope like Maddow find this so hard to fathom? Simple: The merits of the vote seem obvious to her. Therefore, she reasons as know-nothings always do: Since the merits seem so clear to her, she assumes they’re clear to everyone else—to the voters, for example. She even seems to have seen some polls which suggest that the public sees this issue the same way she does. She doesn’t know what major pols know—that those stated views may quickly change when the 30-second ads start appearing.

She doesn’t know that those national polls are irrelevant in particular states or districts. She doesn’t realize that those national polls don’t tell us what part of the electorate will turn out to vote.

Why would Reid postpone the vote? Could it be that he thinks the vote might hurt his own re-election chances? After all, Reid is involved in a very close race. If this vote is “the definition of a winning issue,” why would he, of all people, not want to proceed?

We can’t read Reid’s mind. But Maddow remained clueless on Friday. “Nobody has any clue what Harry Reid is thinking,” she said—a full day after Ryan Grim offered this clue at the Huffington Post:

GRIM (9/23/10): The White House has been pushing hard for such a vote, circulating polling showing that a majority of Americans, including wide margins of independents, support extending the middle-class tax cuts. Ultimately, though, Democrats up for election feared an assault from the GOP that the party was raising taxes on "small businesses," even though a vanishingly small portion of those who would face a tax hike are real small businesses. But, in an age of 30-second commercials, it only takes one to stare into the camera and lament the effect of the tax change on hiring.

Two members of Democratic leadership—Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.)—are facing tight races, as are Sens. Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.).

Grim implied that the vote may have been postponed, in part, because it might hurt Reid’s own chances. A full day later, Maddow still couldn’t imagine a reason for Reid’s decision.

By the way: Why might voters rebel against the Democratic position? Duh. Because they have been massively propagandized about taxation for the past forty years, with no real response from feckless or know-nothing liberals—from people like Maddow.

Maddow is a classic political know-nothing, of a classic “upper-shelf” type. We’ve never seen a major broadcaster who understands the public so poorly. Her type has always harmed progressive interests, and it always will.

In this case, she makes liberals massively dumber. Ain’t life as a Rhodes Scholar grand?

Hayes plays along: People like Maddow make everyone dumber. Later on Friday, Chris Hayes seemed to play along, assuring Maddow that Nancy Pelosi understands politics as well as she and KO do! Hayes praised Pelosi for the absurd idea of holding a vote under obscure rules requiring a two-thirds vote:

HAYES (9/24/10): It is a good move. I mean, look, Nancy Pelosi is not the problem, right? I mean, people are frustrated with the Democrats and frustrated with the House Democrats. Nancy Pelosi I think has done a pretty remarkable job over the last two years. And I think she understands all the political arguments you’ve been making, that I’ve been making, that Keith Olbermann has been making, that a whole host of people have been making, watching this unfold. I think Nancy Pelosi understands these arguments. The question is, can she basically get the Blue Dogs on board with that? And if she essentially bluffs them into it, she have look, we`ll going hold a vote, you know, maybe she can kind of convince them that this is in their best interests. It is crazy that she has to do that convincing, but, yes, it is a good idea. And I`m glad to see that is back on the table.

Pelosi must be really smart; she understands Rachel’s arguments! Or, if we might paraphrase here: Kiss kiss kiss-kiss kiss-slurp!

Surely, Hayes is smarter than that. But sometimes, the smart ones defer to the dumb ones on cable. This has long been the pattern on MSNBC, where liberals get dumbed to the ground.

Special report: Don’t know much trigonometry!

PRELUDE: DON’T KNOW MUCH CURRENT EVENTS (permalink): American adults love to complain about the dumbness of America’s children. We love to discuss how much our kids don’t know—haven’t learned, can’t do.

That said, is anyone dumber, is anyone less educable, than us American adults? Our dumbness is especially stark when it comes to the state of the schools. And nowhere is the dumbness more pronounced than at the top of the “press corps.”

When it comes to American schools, we adults love to recite familiar scripts. And, to a remarkable degree, adults on the left and the right recite the same scripts! In a highly partisan age, there are few topics where the society’s scripting so easily crosses party lines. When it comes to the public schools, major liberals and major conservatives tend to mouth the same know-nothing points.

So do American “journalists.”

How do we American adults “reason” about public schools? We’ll examine that topic all week, reviewing the way a new documentary film (Waiting for Superman) is being received in the press, especially at NBC News. But for sheer stupidity, it’s often hard to top the Washington Post’s Richard Cohen. On Sunday, Cohen mused about that new film in a short piece on the Post’s op-ed page, inside its Outlook section.

The Washington Post had the good sense to keep Cohen’s mess off its web site. Perusing the Sunday Post on-line, you wouldn’t know that Cohen’s piece appeared in the Outlook section. But this is how his short piece started, right in the hard-copy Post:

COHEN (9/26/10): Ignoring schools’ real problem

I began my life in journalism as an education reporter, and one day, in a Washington high school years ago, I learned from teachers that on a given day only 25 percent of their students showed up. The principal’s attendance reports, however, put the figure at close to 100 percent. So I don't need the acclaimed new documentary "Waiting for Superman" to tell me that this nation's schools, particularly the big city ones, are an unforgivable mess—a monstrous lie. I've seen the reports.

Cohen doesn’t need any stinking film to tell him how monstrous the public schools are! He already knows, based on his time as an education reporter!

Here’s the problem with that:

Cohen “began his life in journalism” in 1968, as a general purpose Post reporter. He became a columnist in 1976; his days as an (occasional) “education reporter” had come to an end by that point. But so what? In the paragraph we have quoted, he seems to say that he knows that “this nation's schools, particularly the big city ones, are an unforgivable mess, a monstrous lie,” based on something he observed at a single school more than 35 years ago.

In fairness, he has also “seen the reports,” whatever that might mean.

In a rational world, no newspaper would ever publish something as stupid as that. But this is not a rational world. This is a world of plutocrat scripts, recited by overpaid plutocrat hirelings. Cohen’s editor saw no problem with the inane thing he wrote.

(For a longer blog post by Cohen, just click here. Minor note, for those on this planet: In several ways, monitoring of official attendance has been massively regularized since the time Cohen recalls.)

Cohen goes on to offer an offbeat assessment; he breaks from the society’s Standard Assessment about the alleged monstrous failure of the nation’s schools. In that Standard Scripted Assessment, teachers and their teacher unions are the villains of the piece; they are the reason—the only reason—why “this nation's schools, particularly the big city ones, are an unforgivable mess.” That script is part of a much larger war, in which the nation’s plutocrats began to target the nation’s unions about forty years ago. But when it comes to those teachers unions, every good journalist knows what to say. NBC’s mewling David Gregory recited the script on yesterday’s Meet the Press, although he doesn’t seem to know what he’s talking about when it comes to the nation’s schools. As the day proceeded on MSNBC, Brian Williams, Joe and Mika all continued to pound the script home.

Cohen didn’t blame the unions, though he did of course trash them. Instead, he blamed the nation’s ratty parents; in Cohen’s view, the ratty parents are to blame for the nation’s ratty kids. Question: Could it possibly be the ratty education journalists? The ratty “educational experts?” Could it be the ratty professors? Could it be the education reformers? Please—such scripts do not obtain! Meanwhile, was Cohen’s basic premise true? Is it true that “this nation's schools, particularly the big city ones, are an unforgivable mess—a monstrous lie?”

That is a very strong claim, about a very important subject. Cohen seemed to base the claim on a single incident from the 1970s—and on the fact that he has “read the reports.”

In a sane world, garbage like this couldn’t appear in a major Sunday paper—but you don’t live in such a world. In fact, the nation’s urban schools have made lots of progress in recent years, if the country’s most reliable data can be trusted. But Cohen, like most plutocrat tools, doesn’t seem to have heard.

Plus, he saw a high school fake some data—in 1972!

To judge from what he wrote, Cohen “don’t know much current events.” But then, Williams, Scarborough and Brzezinski clowned, in know-nothing ways, as NBC hammered away during yesterday’s special programming. But so it goes when American “journalists” pretend to discuss the public schools. When it comes to the public schools, they don’t seem to know much trigonometry—or what a slide rule is for.

They do of course know preferred scripts.

We’ll examine their work all week, even reviewing some painful data. But truly, you live in a lunatic world—a world where the talking-points of the plutocrats took control of the public discourse about the time Cohen became a columnist. (It’s all the fault of the unions!)

That said, Cohen has typed his column for 34 years, but he has so little self-awareness that his post included this passage:

COHEN: But this film…didn’t enthrall me. Its overall message that too many schools stink and that the teacher unions with their anachronistic work rules—particularly tenure—are an impediment to education cannot be news. In Washington and New York, two high-profile school chiefs—Michelle Rhee and Joel Klein, respectively—have fought to have teachers serve the kids instead of themselves and a bullet-proof form of job security. (Try firing an incompetent teacher.)

Try firing an incompetent teacher? So an incompetent columnist wrote, after he based a sweeping judgment on something he saw in one lone school, thirty-plus years in the past.

An incompetent editor put that in print. It helped advance a Standard Script—a script devised by highly competent propagandists, thirty-plus years in the past.

Tomorrow—part 1: Holden’s folly

These letters just in from the clouds: Last Friday, the New York Times published five letters about Professor Engel’s column on standardizes testing. (To read all five letters, click this.) Professor Engel didn’t seem to know why parents in low-income schools might want, or need, an annual standardized measure of their child’s progress in reading and math. But then, people like Engel live in the clouds—and at Williams College. They don’t dirty their pretty hands with such plebeian concerns (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/21/10).

All five letters came from “experts.” All five praised this beautiful dreamer for her high-minded thoughts. But the fifth of these letters was very instructive. It came from Jim Wohlleb, who “has worked as a statistician and evaluator for the Little Rock School District.”

Ignore the part about coaching. Instead, focus on what Wohlleb says, in technical language, about “annual adjustments”—“year-to-year variations”— in Arkansas’ statewide tests:

LETTER TO THE NEW YORK TIMES (9/24/10): To Susan Engel’s examples of weaknesses in standardized testing, others would add the tests’ proneness to manipulation by coaching and by annual adjustments.

Since coaching concentrates on specific topics and skills tested, it limits broader learning in not only literacy and math, the two most widely tested subjects, but also many other important subjects like social studies, history and the arts.

In my state, Arkansas, test vendors change every few years. The specific psychometrics used to make different vendors’ test results comparable and the annual equalizations for scoring the same vendors’ tests from year to year are not disclosed. Thus, we lack confidence in year-to-year variations.

After all the years of testing, with their increased importance and their many shortcomings, can we move to the broader assessments suggested by Ms. Engel?

Jim Wohlleb
Little Rock, Ark., Sept. 20, 2010

The writer has worked as a statistician and evaluator for the Little Rock School District.

We don’t agree with Wohlleb’s desire to move on to those “broader assessments.” Low-income parents need a reliable annual assessment of basic progress in reading and math; it’s fine to add other types of assessments, but we can’t see how those basic assessments can possibly be discarded. But note what Wohlleb says about the annual statewide testing in Arkansas, the state where he has worked. We’ll translate his words into less technical English: Due to lack of technical manuals, we can’t be sure that the statewide tests have been equally hard from one year to the next.

(The “psychometrics” haven’t been “disclosed,” Wohlleb says. For that reason, we can’t be confident in the “annual equalizations” of these high-profile tests.)

We’ve written about this problem for years, wasting mountains of time in the process. You see, you live in a world run by clowns; this topic has finally reached the Times, but only in the fifth of five letters published on a related topic. And good God! This letter appears roughly two months after a major statewide scandal in New York—a scandal in which the state of New York threw out years of student test data, saying the data were unreliable. If we might borrow Wohlleb’s language, it became clear that “the specific psychometrics used to make test results comparable and the annual equalizations for scoring the tests from year to year” had completely broken down.

The tests had gotten easier over the years, the state of New York admitted.

This major scandal came to light about two months ago. The New York Times has made no attempt to report how it occurred. As usual, journalistic elites are closing ranks around sets of other statewide elites. This would include all the damn-fool superintendents, like New York City’s Joel Klein, who didn’t know this scam was occurring—or who preferred not to tell. (We saw the problem—Klein didn’t!) Meanwhile, pretty people like Engel write pretty tales about even prettier measures—measures which will be carried out by armies of “trained examiners.” For some unstated reason, these same state educational elites won’t screw up these new, much prettier measures.

You live in a world run by fools—fools with inane, pretty tales.

How dumb are your experts: How other-worldly are your experts? Very other-worldly. This is the fourth of the five expert letters written in praise of Engel. This letter sounds quite lofty, but it makes no real sense:

LETTER TO THE NEW YORK TIMES (9/24/10): Susan Engel is right that we have narrowed our choices about how and what to test in our schools. Her list of alternative indicators of student knowledge, skill, interest and ability are all worth pursuing.

But I doubt that any of them would be of much help to a teacher trying to assist a child having trouble learning his phonics, a student who can’t grasp long division or a group that is unmotivated and seems disconnected from learning.

Conventional standardized tests—with their attendant loss of context, meaning and personal experience—are certainly not the answer. Performance assessment through observation is.

Our research on low-income, urban, minority children enrolled in kindergarten to third grade shows that those who have been in classrooms where teachers use observational techniques far outperform a matched group in reading and math.

This is not because any kind of testing—performance-based or not—is a magic bullet. It’s because performance assessment changes the way teachers teach by focusing their attention on all children across all curriculum domains over time in relation to standards. This is the alternative we need in our public schools.

Samuel J. Meisels
Chicago, Sept. 20, 2010

The writer is president of Erikson Institute, a graduate school in child development.

Everybody has a gimmick! Let’s assume Meisels’ gimmick works. Let’s assume that “performance assessment through observation” (whatever that is—Meisels doesn’t explain) does help low-income children “who can’t grasp long division.”

In what way could those techniques serve as an “alternative” to annual standardized testing? Are low-income parents supposed to take a teacher’s word for the fact that these “observational techniques” are working? Why on earth would they want to do that? Why wouldn’t they insist on an annual test which could demonstrate their child’s alleged progress?

Even if Meisels’ “techniques” work, they can’t take the place of annual testing. Meisels, and the Times, didn’t seem to notice this problem. But then, the experts rarely understand the extent to which low-income parents get deceived about their children’s progress.

By all means, let’s use Meisels’ techniques, whatever they may be. But low-income parents will have no way of knowing if those techniques have actually worked absent some sort of annual standardized test. Upper-class ladies like Engel don’t understand this fact of life. They live pretty lives in Western Mass, insulting the interests of low-income families with each refined breath that they take.