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Daily Howler: Fred Hiatt shows how easy it is to prescribe ''reform'' for the schools
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EASY TO BE FATUOUS! Fred Hiatt shows how easy it is to prescribe "reform" for the schools: // link // print // previous // next //

Origins of opera: We’ll give the Washington Post some credit. On Saturday, the paper ran an editorial about Obama’s cabinet picks. In this passage, the editors showed they understand how language sometimes works:

WASHINGTON POST EDITORIAL (11/22/08): Some critics are unhappy about the number of Clinton administration veterans—the derogatory word is retreads—in the new administration. As we've said before, we have no sympathy for this complaint.

The editors know how language works. There are certain words a writer chooses for the purpose of being “derogatory.”

We chuckled mordantly at that passage because of what preceded it. You see, in the paragraph which came right before, the editors used some derogatory language themselves! This language is used to sneer and roll eyes. But within the Insider Mainstream Press, this lingo is now required:

WASHINGTON POST EDITORIAL: A striking, and somewhat unexpected, element of Mr. Obama's choices is a degree of risk-taking and boldness. Rahm Emanuel as chief of staff is a smart but edgy pick. The will-she-won't-she Clinton soap opera suggests a tolerance for drama in the service of an all-star Cabinet.

It’s now a mandate of Hard Pundit Law. In discussing Obama’s likely selection of Clinton, Village Insiders are required to talk about “soap opera”—“drama.” These are the derogatory terms for the negotiation between Obama and Clinton.

How mandatory has this language become? Here at THE HOWLER, the analysts all adore David Corn. But we suggest you read his Mother Jones post on this subject, a piece which is headlined, “Obama’s First Drama.” At first, Corn was agnostic on the Clinton pick, he writes. But uh-oh! Then this happened:

CORN (11/19/08): But then this happened: the presidential transition of no-drama Obama became infected by the never-ending soap opera of the Clintons. And it really is time to turn that program off. There are plenty of policy and political reasons for a progressive not to fancy Hillary. She served on the Wal-Mart board when the mega-firm was fighting unions; she screwed up health care reform for almost a generation; she voted wrong on the Iraq war and then refused to acknowledge she had erred. But, worst of all, as the cliché goes, with the Clintons, it always does seem to be about the Clintons.

So we've had a week of will-she-or-won't-she and what-about-him. Couldn't this have been handled with a little more grace? Maybe not, since it involves the Clintons.

All those substantive objections didn’t swing David—but the specter of the “soap opera” did! But go ahead—read through David’s full piece. See if you understand why he chooses to refer to these “negotiations” (his word) as a “soap opera.” We’ll be honest. On the merits, we can’t.

This is a “negotiation,” of course. Given Bill Clinton’s world-wide (good-doing) enterprises, the negotiation seems to be fairly complex. Here’s the question: Aside from requisite Clinton-hatred—aside from the desire to run with the crowd—why do we use the derogatory terms to describe this negotiation? Those terms were everywhere this weekend, as pundit-watchers will surely know. For example, this was Chris Wallace’s non-judgmental question to David Axelrod on Fox News Sunday:

WALLACE (11/23/08): Ever since Senator Clinton's name was mentioned, I guess about 10 days ago, there has been the familiar soap opera that always seems to surround them about his financial ties to foreign countries and companies, whether or not she would really prefer to stay in the Senate. After two years, almost, during the Democratic primaries of dealing with all of this, why on earth would Barack Obama want to bring the Clintons into his White House?

Our question: Why on earth would our brighter writers want to sound so much like Wallace? To complete the record, here he is, talking with Brit, during the “all-star” segment:

HUME: The most interesting choice in the group, of course, is the Clinton choice, which is a little off the subject of the economy, but—

WALLACE: All right. We’re going to get—we’re going to get back to that soap opera in a minute.

It’s the law—they’re required to say it! Needless to say, when they did get back to that soap opera, Bill Kristol called it a “drama.” Twice.

Our question: When does a “negotiation” gets transformed into a “soap opera?” Our answer: When a gang of insiders struggle hard to keep their own operas alive.

Team of dramatists: Who is turning this episode into a drama? This comical passage comes from Elisabeth Bumiller, thinking way too hard about Hil and Barack in Saturday’s New York Times:

BUMILLER (11/22/08): Few are predicting that this new relationship born of mutual respect and self-interest will grow into a tight bond between the new president and the woman who will be the public face of his foreign policy, though some say it is not impossible. They argue that a close friendship between the two powerful officials is useful but not essential, and is not a predictor of the success of the nation’s chief diplomat.

“Few are predicting” that this will occur—“though some say it is not impossible!” But so it goes with this silly cohort. “Reporters” churn nonsense of this type—then accuse others of staging soap operas. It’s the way they keep drama alive.

Special report: Back-to-school week!

Part 2—Easy to be fatuous: Many scribes find it “easy to be hard” when they talk about public schooling (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/21/08). The rules of the game are fairly simple: They scold those troubling teachers’ unions—and the troubling pols who support them.

Beyond that, many scribes find it easy to churn perfect pap about public schools—to type tired bromides about “reform,” thus avoiding actual thought. The Washington Post took this standard approach in Saturday’s editorial:

WASHINGTON POST EDITORIAL (11/22/08): Another [cabinet] selection that will merit scrutiny is Mr. Obama's education secretary: Will the choice reflect his stated commitment to reform? Will it be someone with hands-on experience in education and a proven willingness to experiment? While the new president's attention is understandably focused on the economy, not to mention the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it's critical to have someone who comes to the education post with those credentials.

When it comes to Obama’s education secretary, the Post favors “reform”—it wants someone who’s “willing to experiment.” Meanwhile, everyone knows what these words mean when mainstream journalists discuss public schools. “Reform” means cracking down on teachers and teacher groups through ideas like merit pay and the ending of tenure. There may be some merit to these ideas—but few others seem to get mentioned.

In case we didn’t know what “reform” means in these parts of the Village, Fred Hiatt wrote a recent Post op-ed piece which made the point fairly clear.

It’s easy to be fatuous, we incomparably thought, after reading his column.

As usual, Hiatt’s piece took the form of a paean to DC schools chief Michelle Rhee. We mean that as a criticism of Hiatt, not of Rhee. Yes, this passage is utterly silly. But it was written by Hiatt:

HIATT (11/10/08): Rhee is hardly anti-teacher. One problem, she says, is that "our good teachers have not been told that they're good." And she is committed to helping teachers "who have the will but are underperforming—that is essentially the biggest challenge for the District for the next couple of years."

But she won't compromise on the notion that every student can learn to read, write and do math; that their ability to do so should be measured; and that if they're not learning, it's not their fault—it's the schools'.

In a way, you can’t blame Hiatt for that sort of talk; it’s the type of chatter that’s routinely churned by “educational experts.” But Hiatt is being fatuous when he says that “every student can learn, write and do math” (whatever so vague an assurance might mean)—and he builds a straw man when he goes on to say that “their ability to do so should be measured.” (Few oppose sensible measurement.) Duh! The question isn’t whether “every student can learn;” the question is how much various students can learn, at what point in their public schooling. The larger question is what sorts of changes in instructional practice might help these students achieve these goals. Meanwhile, the desire to rush to the question of who’s “at fault” merely extends the problem. But Hiatt makes it clear, at the start of his piece, that fault and blame are driving his vision. He opens with an anecdote designed to show that Rhee is high-minded and good—while an unnamed principal is an uncaring villain. He then cranks out this standard text—although, within the Insider Press, churning such text is real easy:

HIATT: Rhee offers the ultimate in no-excuses leadership. She has taken on one of the worst public school systems in the nation and has pledged to turn it into one of the best within a decade. The usual excuses made for such schools—that they cannot possibly do better because their students are poor, or come from broken families, or haven't been read to, or are surrounded by crime—Rhee does not accept. She has seen such students learn, Rhee explains, in her own classroom in Baltimore in the early 1990s, and in many other schools since.

Just as he drives a framework of “fault” and blame, Hiatt builds a framework in which people are looking for “excuses.” (It can’t be that they’re offering “explanations,” or describing real problems and obstacles.) Of course, it’s easy for pundits to say that we shouldn’t “accept...the usual excuses” about the progress of deserving students who may enter kindergarten far behind their middle-class peers. But those students’ achievements won’t increase just because Hiatt enjoys talking tough—because he churns familiar bromides as a replacement for thought. Once again, though, we have to cut Hiatt some slack, since he can quote “educational experts” saying the same goldarn things:

HIATT: Kati Haycock, president of the nonprofit Education Trust, says Obama is "absolutely unequivocal on, 'Don't tell me black kids can't learn.' It comes directly from his gut." So maybe he will sympathize with Rhee's conclusion that patience, tact and compromise are inappropriate when half your kids or more never graduate from high school.

We’re sure that Haycock is a fine person; Jonathan Kozol writes good things about her, and that’s good enough for us. But everyone knows that “black kids can learn” (whatever that vague assurance might mean); reciting this bromide makes “experts” seem noble, but it doesn’t make anyone smarter. The actual questions here are quite different: How much can this particular child learn, during this particular week, and what would be the best particular way to help him or her do that? Unfortunately, educational experts often like to cheerlead—and the Hiatts start acting like cheerleaders too. Soon, we find ourselves snarling at teachers, who surely must be “at fault” in these students’ “failure to learn.” (By which we presumably mean failure to learn enough.)

In the process, we may fail to notice how few real suggestions come from observers like Hiatt—other than the tired old bromides about things like merit pay.

In large measure, Hiatt’s piece concerns the wonders of merit pay—an idea which sometimes seem to have magical power in the world of the Village pundit. Who knows? Some form of merit pay may be a good thing—though we doubt that Hiatt has any idea, one way or the other. To our ear, his piece was the usual insider piece—a piece pundits churn again and again. He found it easy to be hard—when it came to those lazy teachers. When it came to the search for real ideas, he found it easy to be rather fatuous.

Meanwhile, his column turned—as these columns often do—on a certain miraculous tale. It’s easy to believe in miracles inside this mainstream celebrity press corps. When Post pundits talk about low-income schools, miracles tend to play a key role in their ruminations.

Tomorrow—Part 3: Easy to believe.