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Print view: Does Brian Williams know shit from shinola? On Sunday, he pimped very hard
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RID ME OF THESE MEDDLESOME TEACHERS! Does Brian Williams know shit from shinola? On Sunday, he pimped very hard: // link // print // previous // next //

We the actual people: Last night, Judy Woodruff was feigning surprise at the results of a new Pew survey. As we’ve long noted, major journalists simply don’t like to discuss the public’s vast, groaning ignorance. They don’t like facts like the one with which Laurie Goodstein began her report in the New York Times:

GOODSTEIN (9/28/10): On Basic Religion Test, Many Doth Not Pass

Americans are by all measures a deeply religious people, but they are also deeply ignorant about religion.

Can we talk? We the people always turn out to be “deeply ignorant,” on any information survey. In response, major broadcasters feign surprise. It’s how such things are done.

The well-trained Woodruff feigned surprise on last evening’s NewsHour (click here). Yesterday morning, we wondered if Goodstein was feigning surprise when she included this:

GOODSTEIN: One finding that may grab the attention of policy makers is that most Americans wrongly believe that anything having to do with religion is prohibited in public schools.

An overwhelming 89 percent of respondents, asked whether public school teachers are permitted to lead a class in prayer, correctly answered no.

But fewer than one of four knew that a public school teacher is permitted “to read from the Bible as an example of literature.” And only about one third knew that a public school teacher is permitted to offer a class comparing the world’s religions.

We have no idea why that highlighted finding would be surprising to “policy makers.” In recent years, there is always some incident or other where some teacher thinks she’s required to break up private prayer in the lunchroom—where some principal thinks he mustn’t allow some “Christian club” to meet after school. (Bill O’Reilly often features these incidents.) It has long been clear that many people don’t understand the constitutional principles involved in such matters. We’re not sure why “policy makers” would be grabbed by those findings.

The press corps hates to discuss such surveys. But these surveys should be highly instructive, especially for liberals who want to achieve political success with average voters. (Many liberals prefer to mock such people. It’s been called” the joy of liberalism.”) Bottom line: We the people are always uninformed, even about the most basic topics. Political success will typically go to those who can grasp this fact.

The average voter is always misinformed. But many of our loftiest liberals take pride in failing to grasp this fact. Just yesterday, we noted the way Steve Benen boasted that he can’t understand the reactions of typical voters. Pundits who can’t understand such matters should maybe go talk about sports.

This haughty reaction can feel quite good to upper-class liberal culture warriors. It’s also the way liberals lose.

Final chuckle: Lawrence O’Donnell started his new nightly program on Monday night, on The One True Liberal Channel. Last night, he did a segment about this Pew survey. We’ll pray that he was just pandering when he made the statement we have highlighted, as he threw some of the survey’s questions at (true story!) Penn Jillette:

O’DONNELL (9/28/10): Third, which Bible figure is most closely associated with remaining obedience to God despite suffering. A,Job, B, Elijah, C, Moses, D, Abraham?


O’DONNELL: These are easy! How could anybody get them wrong? Next, according to rulings by the Supreme Court, is a public teacher permitted to read from the Bible as an example of literature? A, yes, B, no.

JILLETTE: If it’s literature, yes.

O’DONNELL: You got it right. I actually got that one wrong.

Did O’Donnell really “get that one wrong?” Or was he just pretending—pandering to his new liberal viewers, knowing that many of them would have gotten it wrong? (His earlier “How could anybody get them wrong?” was a case of Bad Broadcaster Etiquette.)

It’s a key part of our liberal heritage. We liberals love the idea that we’re smarter than the unwashed. If we were really smart, of course, we wouldn’t let ourselves think that.

Meanwhile, here’s Tuesday night’s top quiz question: Was O’Donnell really that uninformed? Or was he already playing us, just two nights into his program?

Special report: Don’t know much trigonometry!

PART 2—RID ME OF THESE MEDDLESOME TEACHERS (permalink): In our personal life, we’ve never used the wh- word. But that word becomes hard to avoid when we consider the conduct of Brian Williams and Rehema Ellis on Monday’s NBC Nightly News. The pair of overpaid corporate hustlers were looking back at Sunday’s “Education Nation” broadcast, a special two-hour “teacher town hall” aired on MSNBC. (To watch the full program, click here.) On that same day, MSNBC also aired an hour-long education crapathon hosted by Mika and Joe.

As Monday’s Nightly News neared its conclusion, Williams played tape of an idealistic, very young teacher who spoke at Sunday’s “teacher town hall.” With his usual skill, Williams had selected the teacher who best expressed the corporate line. After playing tape of this very young person, he and Ellis—let’s just say it—started whoring in earnest:

WILLIAMS (9/27/10): One final word on this gathering we're enormously proud of here in New York this week, a gathering that really set the agenda in education today.

Covering it all, as I mentioned, our education correspondent, Rehema Ellis.

Rehema, we put together this “teacher town hall” yesterday, and I want to show— On the air, a young teacher rose up during a kind of lightning round of comments from the audience and said this:

VERY YOUNG TEACHER: I think--we don't understand tenure. I don't see a need for it. I don't need a piece of paper to tell me that I have to be hired each year. And I think as younger teachers we're seeing a lot of the things that we need. The union contract is getting in the way. I know that in the South Bronx, my kids who don't speak English need an extra vocabulary block. They need an extra phonics block. I need extra time before the test to do extra test prep, but we have a union contract that says the school day is from 8:20 to 3:30. And that's what's so attractive about charter schools, is that they can do what their kids need. If they need an extra hour on Saturday, they bring those kids in on Saturday. I'm not allowed to do that. And the reality is, in my case, is that the union contract is in the way.

WILLIAMS: Whoa! So a new generation comes into education! She just goes over to that third rail and touches it. What do you think?

ELLIS: It's a generational divide. These folks want to do their job, that's all they want to do. They get into the business of education to do what? Make money? Unh-unh! They get into the business of education to teach kids and to see kids learn. What this young woman is saying, “Get out of my way—let me do my job. And if you don't want to let me do my job, if you don't want to do yours, let's push them out of the way.”

Let’s “say it” a slightly different way. That short, gruesome segment was the work of a pair of real corporate whores.

Williams is reported to “earn” $10 million per year. Let’s assume that Ellis is paid somewhere in the upper six figures. There they were, two long-time pursuers of mammon, airing the thoughts of a very young woman who has no spouse; has no children; and may be sharing rent with six roommates. If she doesn’t get “hired” next year, she can go home to mommy and daddy, or she can work as a barkeep.

In all probability, this very young woman will leave the teaching profession in the next few years. She looks like an upper-class, “well-educated” person; she may be one of those bright Princeton kids who are currently saving the public schools in various upper-class fantasies. When she leaves the teaching profession, the odds are good that she will seek a high-paying job in a different career. But before this very young woman proceeds to that future, Williams was eager to praise her for saying that she doesn’t need no stinking tenure—or a contract. After that, Ellis jumped in, seeming to say that public school teaching today is no longer about all the big bucks.

It’s a wonder we pay our school teachers at all, given the way these corporate hustlers pimp their inspiring dreams.

Can we talk? It’s very easy for overpaid corporate hustlers to paint such inspiring pictures. To this pair of GE spokesmodels, that very young woman’s very young views make her a prime union-buster. And for whatever reason, NBC’s special “education nation” broadcasts have been all about teacher-bashing, and union-bashing, as they have unfolded. These broadcasts have been all about the absurd idea that the failures in our American schools are the fault of the nation’s vile teachers.

Only a fool could really believe that teachers, and their teachers unions, explain the failures of our school systems. But NBC has driven that ugly tale hard—and so did the hapless Stephen Holden, in last Friday’s New York Times.

Holden reviewed the new documentary, Waiting for Superman. Or at least he tried.

Yesterday, we discussed the first groaning error found in Holden’s review (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/28/10). The groaner came quickly, in paragraph 4; Holden slammed the Washington (DC) Teachers Union for “refus[ing] to vote on a measure under which teachers would give up tenure in exchange for higher salaries based on merit.” In fact, the union overwhelmingly accepted such a contract last June. Holden didn’t seem to know this.

Almost surely, Holden’s error was partly the fault of Davis Guggenheim, who directed the teacher-bashing film the scribe was reviewing.

Just remember: Journalists rarely know squat about public schools; movie reviewers will know even less. That’s why it’s so easy to get these people to make mistakes like that first groaner—or to type paragraphs like the middle graf below, in which a teacher-bashing cineaste doesn’t know whereof he speaks:

HOLDEN (9/24/10): Mr. Guggenheim calls dysfunctional schools “dropout factories.” For children growing up in poor neighborhoods where parents lack the resources to send them to private schools, the consequences can be dire, not to mention economically wasteful.

Consider the following statistics cited in the film: the annual cost of prison for an inmate is more than double what is spent on an individual public school student. Eight years after Congress passed the No Child Left Behind act, with the goal of 100 percent proficiency in math and reading, most states hovered between 20 and 30 percent proficiency, and 70 percent of eighth graders could not read at grade level. By 2020, only an estimated 50 million Americans will be qualified to fill 123 million highly skilled, highly paid jobs. Among 30 developed countries, the United States ranks 25th in math and 21st in science.

“Waiting for Superman” doesn’t explore the deeper changes in American society that have led to this crisis: the widening gap between rich and poor, the loosening of the social contract, the coarsening of the culture and the despair of the underclass. By showing how fiercely dedicated idealists are making a difference, it is a call to arms.

“The deeper changes in American society which have led to this crisis?” From what planet does Holden type if he thinks this crisis is somehow new—if he thinks that some “deeper changes” in our society have somehow “led to” this crisis? In a repellent bit of self-advertisement, Joe and Mika seemed to take this same foolish line on Sunday’s program. They bragged about the way they sobbed when they watched the Guggenheim film, they felt so bad for the low-income kids who were getting such a raw deal in their crummy schools.

Joe and Mika seemed to be shocked, just shocked by this specter. Apparently, they too arrived full-blown on the planet at some point in the last year.

Back to Holden’s middle passage:

“Mr. Guggenheim” is right on one point; many of our public school systems fail to produce good results for many deserving kids. (This has always been true. It had become a point of wide public discussion by 1965.) For that reason, it actually matters whether people like Guggenheim and Holden know what they’re talking about when they stage their moral crusades to rid us of these meddlesome teachers. But does Holden know what he’s talking about when he discusses the public schools? Let’s consider a pair of claims he makes in that middle passage:

First claim: In 2010, most states hover between 20 and 30 percent proficiency, and 70 percent of eighth graders cannot read at grade level.

Good lord! Seventy percent of eighth graders can’t read at grade level? That claim sounds very, very bad—though we’d guess that it isn’t true.

“Grade level” is an amorphous term, although it’s long been part of our educational language. Though he doesn’t say, Holden is almost surely referring to eighth-grade “proficiency” rates on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (the NAEP) in citing those statistics from Guggenheim’s film. But alas: Nowhere does the NAEP ever say that “proficient” is another term for “grade level.” Instead, the NAEP explicitly warns us, right up front, that its technical terms, including “basic” and “proficient,” should be handled with care (click here, scroll down to page 5):

Achievement levels
Based on recommendations from policymakers, educators, and members of the general public, the Governing Board sets specific achievement levels for each subject area and grade. Achievement levels are performance standards showing what students should know and be able to do. NAEP results are reported as percentages of students performing at or above the Basic and Proficient levels and at the Advanced level.

As provided by law, [the National Center for Educational Statistics], upon review of congressionally mandated evaluations of NAEP, has determined that achievement levels are to be used on a trial basis and should be interpreted with caution.

Does “proficient” mean “grade level?” The NAEP never makes such a claim—and it specifically warns people like Guggenheim to be careful in how they handle such terms. But no matter! Moral crusaders gotta crusade, and Holden’s claim helps send us to war—against the nation’s teachers. Just so you’ll know: The NAEP uses average scores, not “proficiency” rates, as its basic measure in all its reports. (At least one expert, Gerald Bracey, has argued that the NAEP’s standard for “proficient” is artificially high.)

“Seventy percent of eighth graders can’t read at grade level?” We would guess that the claim is untrue. But you can be quite sure of one thing—Holden didn’t know what he was talking about when he typed this stirring claim. Almost surely, Guggenheim didn’t know shit from shinola either. He just knew that the claim spiced his film.

This brings us to Holden’s second claim in the passage we’ve posted above. This second claim is an accurate claim—and it’s a claim which will prove quite interesting, giving us a window into the ugly world of our ugly American history:

Second claim: Among 30 developed countries, the United States ranks 25th in math and 21st in science.

Plainly, Holden refers to the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), a testing program run by the OECD. More specifically, he refers to results from 2006, when the United States did indeed rank 21 (out of 30) in science, the subject stressed that year. (Newer results, from 2009, will be released in December.) Did the United States really rank 21st in science? (The PISA tests 15-year-olds.) Yes, it did, if you want to ignore issues of statistical significance, issues the NCES observes when it reports such results.

For the record, the United States scores higher on other international measures—for example, on the TIMSS and the PIRLS. The PIRLS is an international measure of reading achievement (among fourth-graders); despite Holden’s gloomy tale about eighth-grade reading, American students scored 13th out of 40 countries on the most recent measure, scoring ahead of England and France, just behind Germany and Denmark. (For results from the 2007 TIMSS, click here; scroll down to pages 7 and 32 for math and science, respectively.) Why do Guggenheim, and therefore Holden, discuss the PISA, not the TIMSS or the PIRLS? Sad. It seems that our teacher-bashing crusaders have begun to engage in “international test-shopping.” They only discuss the international test which best drives their dumb, nasty tale.

Back to the PISA, a 2006 measure of science literacy conducted among 15-year-olds. The result there weren’t good for the US of A. These were the average scores obtained by the thirty OECD nations:

Combined science literacy scale, PISA, 2006:
Finland 563
Canada 534
Japan 531
New Zealand 530
Australia 527
Netherlands 525
Korea, Republic of 522
Germany 516
United Kingdom 515
Czech Republic 513
Switzerland 512
Austria 511
Belgium 510
Ireland 508
Hungary 504
Sweden 503
[OECD average score: 500]
Poland 498
Denmark 496
France 495
Iceland 491
United States 489
Slovak Republic 488
Spain 488
Norway 487
Luxembourg 486
Italy 475
Portugal 474
Greece 473
Turkey 424
Mexico 410

Finland whacked the rest of the OECD, as it typically does; the United States scored well down the list. On other tests, the United States scores higher. But this wasn’t a good result.

Question: Was that result the fault of our teachers? Was it the fault of their unions? Are Finland’s teachers working harder, working smarter, performing better? Is that why Finland scored so high? How about the teachers in Canada, a nation which also scored high? Holden is willing to imply such things, working off crap he’s been fed by Guggenheim. But then, Guggenheim conned Holden into claiming that Washington’s teachers wouldn’t accept merit pay and stronger performance assessments—even though they overwhelmingly voted to accept such a contract, in June 2010.

Remember: Major journalists don’t know squat about the public schools. Holden was willing to screech and yell, just as Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir had done—but you can bet the house that he didn’t really know what he was talking about. Of course, it would be unfair to single the film critics out; Williams, Ellis, Scarborough, Brzezinski don’t know shit from shinola either when it comes to the public schools. (Neither does David Gregory.) They do know the latest corporate line, a line they have pimped, with remarkable fervor, all through this past week’s special programs.

That said, a basic fact obtains: American 15-year-olds scored rather poorly on the 2006 PISA, in both science and math. Did this happen because our teachers want too much money—too much job security? Because they’re too lazy, too selfish, uncaring? Because they’re not as good as teachers in Finland and Canada? Because they lack the moral fervor of very young Princeton grads? No doubt, our teachers and teachers unions are “at fault” to some extent. Tomorrow, though, we’ll show you how that American PISA score looks—when you break it down in ways fantasists like Williams and Ellis won’t touch in a million years.

Our brutal history comes into play when we break down that PISA score. But then, plutocrats like Williams and Guggenheim may not be willing to “know much about history” when history looks like this.

“Don’t know much about history!” Sam Cooke wrote the lyrics (click here). These know-nothings, mouthing their upper-class line, act the lyrics out.

Tomorrow: How we got here

About those NAEP achievement levels: Plainly, Holden was plainly referring to the NAEP when he wrote that “70 percent of eighth graders cannot read at grade level.” In fact, that is the percentage of eighth graders who score below “proficient” on the NAEP reading test. But “proficient” doesn’t mean “grade level.” Here’s how the NAEP explains its “achievement levels,” which are tied to arbitrary cut-off points on the NAEP reading test:

NAEP Achievement Levels

  • Basic denotes partial mastery of prerequisite knowledge and skills that are fundamental for proficient work at each grade.
  • Proficient represents solid academic performance. Students reaching this level have demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter.
  • Advanced represents superior performance.

To our ear, “proficient” is slightly above “grade level” in that lexicon, “basic” is slightly below. But neither term actually means “grade level,” and the board of governors specifically warns against using these terms in a careless way. Just a guess: Many eighth-graders who score in the “basic” range, but below “proficient,” are able to “read at grade level.”

By the way: How many eighth-graders were “reading at grade level” in (let’s say) 1950, before all those “deeper changes in American society…led to this crisis?” Guggenheim doesn’t have any idea. Neither does anyone else.

Final point, for those who would live on this planet:

According to the NAEP, black eighth-graders are scoring much higher in reading today than in 1971, when the NAEP tests began. Judging from a welter of reviews, Guggenheim’s film doesn’t mention this fact. Almost surely, the crusading director simply hadn’t heard.