UNFORTUNATELY, IT STILL ISNT WORK! Hedrick Smith replies to our post—and we, in turn, to him: // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, OCTOBER 28, 2005
PNAC NAIF STRIKES AGAIN: Weve marveled before at Michael Kinsley, brightest man of the 1980s. More specifically, weve gaped and marveled at Kinsleys frequent current factual cluelessness. (For our report on his ignorance of the important group, PNAC, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/9/05). And this morning, the PNAC naif has struck again. In the Post, Kinsley writes this about Judith Miller and Scooter Libby:
KINSLEY (10/28/05): Everyone assumed that Miller's source was [Libby]. Him and/or Karl Rove...He said he didn't mind if she testified. She apparently didn't hear this, so a couple months later he said it louder and she said okay. Then she testified that she couldn't remember who told her that Valerie Plame was an undercover CIA agent, but it wasn't [Libby].But thats an amazingly jumbled account of what Miller has said. Heres her account in the New York Times of her June 23, 2003 meeting with Libby:
MILLER (10/16/05): At that breakfast meeting, our conversation also turned to Mr. Wilson's wife. My notes contain a phrase inside parentheses: ''Wife works at Winpac.'' Mr. Fitzgerald asked what that meant. Winpac stood for Weapons Intelligence, Non-Proliferation, and Arms Control, the name of a unit within the C.I.A. that, among other things, analyzes the spread of unconventional weapons.In fact, Miller doesnt claim that anyone told her that Plame was an undercover agent. Early in her piece, she says she doesnt think that Libby ever told her that Plame was under cover—but then again, she doesnt assert that she ever knew this fact. Kinsley makes it sound like somebody other than Libby told her. This insinuation seems to be wrong. But so it goes, again and again, in our celebrity press corps.
Indeed, recent discussions of this high-profile matter have been chock-a-block full of false facts. On Hardball, Chris Matthews has been cheerleading for indictments for weeks, but he just keeps getting his basic facts wrong, making blunders which cut both ways. On the one hand, Matthews keeps saying, incorrectly, that Joseph Wilson said that Dick Cheney sent him on his trip to Niger. This is a bogus RNC talking-point—one that Matthews keeps reciting. But then too, he keeps insisting that we have no idea why Cheney wouldnt have seen a report on Wilsons trip. In fact, theres a clear explanation of that matter in the Senate Intelligence Committee report—an explanation no one really disputes. Even Wilson has long since agreed that Cheney didnt get briefed on his trip. But Matthews, clueless, still hasnt heard. NBC pays him massive, large sums. But hes too lazy to read the basic reports—and he isnt savvy (or concerned) enough to keep his ignorance under a basket.
But then again, for perfect cluelessness, wed have to give high marks to Miller. She included the following anecdote in her Times report—and shes been slammed for it ever since:
MILLER: Mr. Fitzgerald asked about a notation I made on the first page of my notes about this July 8 meeting, ''Former Hill staffer.''Miller didnt have to include that in her report. Shes been slammed for agreeing to these ground rules ever since. To all appearances, Miller simply didnt realize how bad this matter would make her look. But then, how clueless are the foppish grandees of your reigning celebrity press corps? Just watch Matthews fumble his basic facts each night—or reread that passage from Kinsley.
UNFORTUNATELY, IT STILL ISNT WORKING: On October 10, we posted a short report about Making Schools Work with Hedrick Smith, a two-hour PBS documentary about public schools which serve low-income kids (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/10/05). We noted a peculiar (if familiar) fact; one of the schools which the program featured has extremely low test scores. The schools in question: Spaugh Middle School of Charlotte, North Carolina. This past spring, only 57.7 percent of Spaughs black eighth graders passed North Carolinas end-of-grade reading test, we noted. [S]tatewide, 80.5 percent of black eighth graders passed. We then asked what we think is a sensible question: Without criticizing the staff at Spaugh, why would a school with these results be singled out as a school that works?
Weve received the following e-mail from Smith, which were happy to post in full (and respond to). No, we really dont agree with Smiths points. But as weve told him, we assume that everyone involved in this discussion has a single, uniform goal. We assume were all looking for ways for low-income kids to get a better deal from their schooling:
E-MAIL FROM SMITH: The viewer should have understood that we were not singling out the Spaugh Middle School as a model school for others to learn from and mimic. We did that with another school in Charlotte, the Highland Elementary School, which in six years jumped from a 36 percent passing rate to over 80 percent. We were using Spaugh to illustrate the Charlotte strategy of "equity"—putting more resources into a school of need, a high poverty neighborhood, kids from broken homes, high crime rates.Smith makes two different points in his e-mail. He says that Spaugh students have shown considerable improvement year to year, although theyre still not at state average. Second, he says that Making Schools Work did not intend to single out Spaugh as a model school; he says the program was just using Spaugh to illustrate the Charlotte strategy of equity—putting more resources into a school of need, a high poverty neighborhood, kids from broken homes, high crime rates.
Well have to disagree with each point. Heres why:
Progress at Spaugh: In what follows, we mean no disrespect to the staff at Spaugh; their effort and character are both quite apparent as we watch the Spaugh segment in Making Schools Work. Spaugh does indeed serve a high-poverty neighborhood. We ourselves have taught in schools which serve deserving low-income kids, and we know it isnt easy to produce the results we all dream of and want to work for.
But its hard to say that Spaugh is showing considerable improvement at this time. Well start with a type of comparison Smith didnt make; well compare the annual passing rate of Spaughs black eighth graders on North Carolinas state reading test. Here are the passing rates of Spaughs black eighth graders in reading in the past three years:
Passing rate, Spaugh black eighth graders, readingPassing rates jump around on such tests; this is especially true among relatively small populations, like a single grade group in a single school. But its hard to say Spaugh is showing progress when one looks at these figures. This is especially true when one considers this fact—the passing rate among black eighth-graders statewide has risen slightly during this period (from 77.8 percent to 80.5). But then, the same pattern obtains in seventh grade:
Passing rate, Spaugh black seventh graders, readingHere too, the statewide black passing rate has risen slightly during this period (74.7 to 76.2). Three years is a short time span, but its hard to find the progress here. Only on the sixth-grade level have Spaughs numbers gone up:
Passing rate, Spaugh black sixth graders, readingStatewide, 69.5 percent of black sixth graders passed the reading test this year. Overall, wed call Spaughs numbers flat—and theyre far behind the statewide norm. Its quite a stretch to claim meaningful progress.
For the record, Smith makes a different type of comparison in his e-mail. He compares the year to year passing rates of the Class of 2005; that is, he compares Spaughs sixth-grade passing rate in 2003 with the eighth-grade passing rate two years later. If the students tested were all the same kids—if the same group of kids had attended Spaugh these three years—this comparison might be instructive. But alas! In 2003, Spaugh tested 193 black sixth-graders; two years later, in 2005, Spaugh tested only 142 black eighth-graders. (This is due to no failure on Spaughs part; it tested roughly 95 percent of its black eighth graders all three years.) Is Smith making a valid comparison? Sorry—because Spaughs population was quite different two years later, comparing these scores is pure apples-to-oranges. We didnt decide to ignore this comparison; we skipped this comparison, because its basically worthless. But this sort of thing goes on a great deal when well-meaning journalists seek good news at the nations low-income schools. Well note this syndrome in more detail when we examine Making Schools Work at greater length, starting next week.
How Spaugh was presented in Making Schools Work: In his e-mail, Smith makes a second claim. He says that Making Schools Work did not intend to single out Spaugh as a model school; he says the program was just using Spaugh to illustrate the Charlotte strategy of equity—putting more resources into a school of need. Readers can judge this claim for themselves by reading the programs transcript (the segment on Charlotte starts about halfway through); well examine this point in more detail in our reports next week. But weve watched and re-watched the shows segment on Spaugh since we received this e-mail from Smith, and well have to say we disagree with the general thrust of his statement. In the part of the program which deals with Equity Plus schools like Spaugh, Smith describes the way the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system sends educational SWAT teams into struggling schools. Superintendent James Pughsley takes it from there:
PUGHSLEY: We pride ourselves on the fact that we allocate resources on a differentiated basis, based on need—not just purely a formula based on the number of kids you have, but what are the needs of those kids? What are the conditions that were trying to overcome? That determines the level of resources that well allocate.Moments later, Smith takes it local. The importance of Equity-Plus Schools is evident here at Bishop Spaugh Academy, he says. But during the time he spends at Spaugh, were never told a vastly important fact. Were never told that, for all their importance, sometimes when SWAT teams go into a school, they dont seem to do any good. You would never know, from the segment on Spaugh, that its seventh- and eighth-grade reading scores have actually declined in the three years considered. Most specifically, you wouldnt know it because Smith pops up at the end of the segment and makes this puzzling statement:
SMITH: Over the past three years, Spaugh has been steadily improving student performance. But it isnt just Spaugh—the entire Charlotte district has been on a solid, steady upward trend over the past nine years.For reasons well examine next week, Smiths claim about the Charlotte district could be seen as a minor stretch. But his claim about Spaugh is, simply put, puzzling. We cant imagine why someone would say that Spaugh has been steadily improving student performance—unless he wants to send viewers home happy. Its been a crippling journalistic impulse, over the course of the past forty years—one that tells viewers that they can stop worrying about the deserving, delightful kids who need our help in our nations urban schools. Things are going well, Smiths viewers were told—but Spaughs test scores seem to say something different. Thats true despite all the heartache, concern and good faith put out by Spaughs hard-working staff.
Much more on these topics will follow. Making Schools Work is a fascinating study. Because it concerns the kids who sit in those little chairs, it deserves our fullest attention.
TWO NOTES ON METHOD: Spaugh is roughly 90 percent black. Weve used black scores to permit comparison with black passing rates statewide. As weve seen in earlier posts, its hard to know what to make of a local score gain until one sees what is happening on the same test statewide. (Sometimes a local score gain is produced by an easier test.)
Second point: Why are we (and Smith) considering only three years of test scores from Spaugh? Smith explains in Making Schools Work: [Spaugh] used to be a top science magnet school with a racially mixed student body from all over the district. But three years ago, when the courts ended busing, Spaugh overnight became a nearly all-black school serving a poor neighborhood. Spaughs student population was vastly different as late as the 2001-2002 school year. Were considering the three years in which Spaugh has been a neighborhood school with a mostly-black student population.
LINKS: For the web site of Making Schools Work, click here. For convenience, here is the programs full transcript. Meanwhile, readers can check all test data at the official state site. You know what to do—just click here.