YOUR HOWLER GETS RESULTS! Michelle Rhee vastly downsizes her tale. A big magazine doesnt notice: // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, DECEMBER 5, 2008
Lyons knows fiction: In this post, Digby joins our earlier post in praising Matt Browner Hamlin, who correctly described the press corps impulse for engaging in drama-projection. Post ombudsman E. R. Shipp diagnosed this illness in March 2000, as her paper was making a joke of a crucial White House election. It seemed that the Post was typecasting a political drama rather than doing real journalism, Shipp said. (As a result of this approach, some candidates are whipping boys; others seem to get a free pass, Shipp correctly observed.)
But then, Gene Lyons, who pretty much got us started with his 1996 book, Fools for Scandal, offered the same sort of critique in his own column this week. We think you should read every word:
Drama, fiction, creative writing? Or maybe just novelization of news? (See Genes closing paragraph.) These are all variants on a basic idea: Increasingly, your press corps has abandoned the techniques of journalism, substituting the techniques and values of fiction or drama. Its hard to get regular people to grasp the strangeness of this widespread approach. Indeed, the press corps conduct flies in the face of everything that might strike folks as credible.
With this gang, its novels, all the way down. But its hard to get people to understand that such an odd thing could be true.
Why not read each thrilling installment: Its easy to bollix reports on the schools. Enjoy each thrilling installment:
Today, in Part 4, we wend our way back to Kristofs (know-nothing?) advice.
Part 4Easy to know next to nothing: Your upper-end press corps is never more inane and inept than when it discusses low-income schools. Indeed, this problem rears its head again today, in this groaning editorial in the Washington Post.
Who should Obama pick to head the Education Department? As always, the editors invent a childish world, a world inhabited by two warring groupsthe reformers and the evil-doers (those more wedded to the status quo), who are, of course, by the rules of the game, allied with teachers unions. The Posts headline is stirring, and quite high-minded: A Job for a Reformer, it proclaims. The Post pretends to be deeply concerned. But it would be hard to overstate the childishness of this portrayal:
Uh-oh! Darling-Hammond isnt in the reform movement, the editors proclaim. Indeed, she is no fan of Teach for America, they childishly sayand its clear that Teach for America is part of the reform crowd. But what if Teach for America's success in attracting top college graduates hasnt led to real success inside our low-income classrooms? The editors call Darling-Hammond no fan of the program; in fact, her research suggests that Teach for America hasnt produced the kind of results which its supporters claim.
Youd almost think that education reformers would want to know if thats really trueif the programs alleged success is only resumé-deep. But for decades now, the press corps has majored in happy talk when it considers the world of our low-income schools. Pleasing claims are accepted on facethen are trumpeted quite promiscuously. But is it true or is it false? Has Teach for America achieved in the classroom? There is rarely any sign that the press really cares about questions like that. When Darling-Hammonds research suggests that the program hasnt achieved, she is described as no fan of the programand it means shes opposed to reform.
But so it goes when upper-end swells stoop to chat about low-income schools. On November 13, Nicholas Kristof high-mindedly scolded Obama for (perhaps) putting education on the back burner. But when people like Kristof discuss public schools, do they really know what theyre talking about? Before we go back and take a look at the advice Kristof offered Obama, lets consider this recent column by the Posts Jay Mathews. In this piece, we see the level of skill the upper-end press corps typically brings to its discussions of low-income schools.
For the record, Mathews is one of the Posts top education reporters. He has been on the beat a long time, and hes quite influential. In this particular column, Mathews was also giving Obama advice about picking a Secretary of Ed; indeed, he specifically recommended Arlington Countys retiring superintendent, Robert Smith, whose achievements were said to be simply astounding. In this passage, Mathews enthused, at some length, about a possible Secretary of Ed:
We assume that Smith has been a diligent, admirable superintendent. But Mathews analysis rates a failing gradeand this sort of the work is routinely found on the press corps highest levels. Quite possibly, Smith never called to brag about his countys achievement rates because he knew those rates were remarkably ordinary. But so what? Mathews had produced another feel-good reporta report which completely failed to capture the problems involved in interpreting test scores.
Yes, those achievement gains sound greatif you dont know a thing about how to read test scores, and if you havent taken a look at the recent data available in this valuable page from the state of Virginias web site. (These data only involve the last three school years. For Arlington Countys data, click here.) In fact, Arlington Countys gains in passing rates seem to be closely matched around the state of Virginiaand the countys passing rates among blacks and Hispanics are slightly lower than the passing rates for those groups in the state as a whole. In the 2007-2008 school year, for example, 76 percent of the countys black students passed the states English/reading testsbut 78 percent of black students passed these tests in the state as a whole. The story is the same in math: In Arlington County, 69 percent of black students passed the state testsbut 73 percent of black students passed in the state as a whole. (Similar patterns obtain, in both English and math, for Arlington Countys Hispanic students.) These are relatively small differences, and further demographic analysis could make Arlington County look somewhat better (or somewhat worse). But Mathews seemed to think that Smith had achieved some sort of startling success with minority students. On the surface, he has notand yet, this type of feel-good analysis was done at the top of our upper-end press corps, complete with a recommendation that Obama just might want to grab a star like Smith to serve as Education Sec.
(Two additional points: First, those gains in passing rate can be tricky. In math, the passing rate for Arlingtons black students jumped eleven points in the past two yearsfrom 58 percent in 2006 to 69 percent in 2008. That looks greatuntil you see that the passing rate for black students statewide jumped by the same eleven points. This could simply mean that the state math tests got easier; absent a careful analysis, there is no way to know. Meanwhile, the shrinking of the gap in passing rates between whites and minorities may mean nothing at all, due to the so-called ceiling effect. Has the achievement gap between whites and minorities really shrunk in Arlington County? Simply put, theres no real way to know from a test of this type.)
Good grief. But if Mathews cant analyze these matters any better than this, what sorts of analysis are going on within the Post editorial board, whose members childishly picture a world comprised of reformers and hacks?
That asked, lets return to our starting point. Lets return to that earlier column in which Kristof lightly scolded Obama for (possibly) downplaying education. After his scolding, Kristof wasted a good deal of time, giving a bit of book report on a new but largely irrelevant book. Then, he have Obama his studied advice for improving our low-income schools. Heres what he finally said:
Relying on a study from a high-minded group, Kristof rattled off three steps to boost weak schools. All three steps seek to improve the quality of the teacher corps in low-income schools. This may well be a good thing to do, but Kristof seemed to know of nothing else that might improve low-income schools. This paragraph represents his whole attempt to argue for his three proposals.
Our best guess? Most likely, Kristof doesnt know a lot about this particular topic. (Theres no reason why he should.) But this is the sort of work we often get when journalistic elites take a few moments to slum on the topic of low-income schools. The lack of intellectual effort is strikingand the recommendations are highly predictable. Meanwhile, the technical breakdowns will often be striking: Theyll present financial data which havent been adjusted for inflation. Theyll praise superintendents for amazing achievementsalthough the achievements are really quite average. When a professor studies a ballyhooed program, theyll dismiss her as a union hack. Theyll take a school with the second-lowest reading score in the stateand praise it at the top of page one.
Kristof started by lightly scolding Obama. He then produced one paragraph of scripted advice. Is Obama short-changing the schools, as Kristof frets? For ourselves, wed be inclined to say this: Press corps! Look whos talking!
Your Howler gets results/Rhee edition: Were not sure how Michelle Rhee got to be a Democrat. But inevitably, David Brooks praises her today in his columns opening paragraph. We think you know the requisite lingo. Rhees a reformer, of course:
Brooks is more mature than some, describing two camps: reform and establishment. But by the rules of the game, the Rhees and the Kleins support real reform, not the superficial kind. And, of course, the teachers unions are required to be on the wrong side.
Were not sure how Rhee became a Dem, as Brooks seems to describe her. But we were struck by one part of Amanda Ripleys profile of Rhee in the December 6 Time. Readers, your HOWLER keeps getting results! If Ripleys account is accurate, Rhee has massively downsized her ballyhooed claims about her own glorious past:
Say what? As we have repeatedly noted, Rhee has always made a much more grandiose claim about her success in the classroom. Indeed, when Rhee was tapped to head DCs schools, the Washington Post quoted the claim from her professional resume: Over a two-year period, moved students scoring on average at the 13th percentile on national standardized tests to 90 percent of students scoring at the 90th percentile or higher (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/2/07).
Thats what Rhee had always claimedand this highly implausible claim was ballyhooed by the hacks and the marks who love happy-talk about low-income schools. But in Time, Rhees claim has been ratcheted way, way down. As of June 2007, ninety percent of Rhees students had scored at the 90th percentileor higher. Now, Ripley cites a vastly different claim. The majority of Rhees kids were at grade level, this new account modestly says. The down-sized claim is still taken as a sign of Rhees genius, of course.
Can that really be what Rhee told Ripley? If so, it represents a vast change in the reformers tale. But you know how your upper-end press corps works! Ripley ignores the change in this famous old tale, and doesnt ask Rhee to explain it. Remember: Rhee is on the side of reform, like the folks at Teach for America. Her claims are thus taken at face value; when her claims change, scribes know not to notice. Its Darling-Hammond who is so vile. Darlings, she has dared to question the tales your press corps loves to peddle!
There are few words strong enough to describe the misconduct which routinely flows in this manner. Low-income kids exist as props, to be used in the press corps heart-warming tales. If the tale is pleasing, it will be retold; those who challenge it get typecast as union hacks in the press corps Official Group Novel.
Yesterday, we thought of the press corps as we read poor Brian Greene, who was trying to deal with the shape of Einsteins universe. Heres what Greene (quite helpfully) says, in The Fabric of the Cosmos:
Instantly, Greene offers formulations which we think only muddle the matter. (Each of us carries our own clock, our own monitor of the passage of time.) But its very constructive when he expresses his sense of amazement at the structure of Einsteins cosmos.
Thats pretty much the way we feel whenever we quietly sit and think about our education reporting. Is our world really a cosmic jokea giant practical joke by the gods? Put another way: Can these hapless, compliant journalists really be actual humans?
They dont know how to adjust for inflation. They dont know how to interpret test scores. They cut-and-paste cant from educational groups, then scold Obama for his lack of diligence. And Rhee can say whatever she likesjust like the well-raised, slightly delusional Princeton types who hold court at Teach for America. If they say it, its assumed to be true. If you do research, youre bad.
Einsteins world is hard to processbut so is the world of this press corps.