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Print view: America's children can't read, write or reason. Neither can New York Times journalists
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THE FRUIT OF A FORTY-YEAR SCRIPT! America’s children can’t read, write or reason. Neither can New York Times journalists: // link // print // previous // next //

Stalking the wild budget numbers: How much would it cost the federal budget to extend all the Bush tax rates—the current tax rates, that is? How much would it cost to extend just the rates which affect the middle-class? Last Thursday, we noted a nagging problem in the way this topic is reported by two of our biggest newspapers (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/2/10).

Here’s the problem: According to standard accounts, extending the Bush tax rates for the highest earners will add $700 billion to federal deficits in the next ten years. But that’s where the agreement ends. How much would it cost if we only extend the tax rates on income below $250,000? We noted that the Washington Post and the New York Times tell this overall story quite differently. They use quite different numbers:

NEW YORK TIMES EDITORIAL (12/2/10): Both sides have long agreed that tax cuts for people earning less than $250,000 should be extended. That is more than enough. It would preserve $3.2 trillion in tax cuts over the next 10 years. Republicans, however, insist that the high-end cuts also be extended, bringing the total 10-year cost to $4 trillion.

WASHINGTON POST EDITORIAL (11/28/10): [W]hy is Mr. Obama, having appointed the debt commission, proposing a permanent extension of the tax cuts for households making under $250,000 a year? “Now, this is actually an area where Democrats and Republicans agree," he said in Indiana on Tuesday. "The only place where we disagree is whether we can afford to also borrow $700 billion to pay for an extra tax cut for the wealthiest Americans, for millionaires and billionaires. I don't think we can afford it right now—not when we are going to have to make some tough decisions to rein in our deficits." Missing from Mr. Obama's analysis: any explanation of how we can afford to borrow more than $2 trillion to pay for making the rest of the tax cut permanent.

Say what? According to the Times, extending the tax rates for income below $250,000 would cost $3.2 trillion over ten years. Extending the tax rates for income above that figure takes the cost to $4 trillion. We’d say this is the standard account—the account which is most commonly seen in the nation’s press. But the Post seemed to say that extending the rates for income under $250,000 would cost only $2 trillion. Last Thursday, we noted how strange it is when our two biggest political papers seem to use such different numbers to describe so basic a matter.

Your DAILY HOWLER keeps getting results! In a front-page report in Sunday’s Post, Shailagh Murray continued to use the $2 trillion figure. But then, near the end of her piece, she tried to semi-explain:

MURRAY (12/4/10): The GOP plan to extend all the tax cuts is estimated to cost $4 trillion, while the plan Obama favored would cost $2 trillion …

Republicans have complained that Democrats hid the true cost of permanently extending middle-class benefits by including only a short-term fix to the alternative minimum tax, one of the most expensive provisions, shielding millions of middle-class households from higher tax bills.

An honest tally of the Democratic bills, GOP Senate aides said, would raise the 10-year cost of both proposals to at least $3.3 trillion over 10 years, compared to about $4 trillion over 10 years to extend all the Bush provisions, including the AMT.

As we had recalled from September, the White House has whittled down the projected cost of its proposal by a bit of figure-finagling. Almost everywhere, journalists use the figures recommended by those GOP aides, in which extension of all the Bush tax rates would cost roughly $4 trillion over ten years, with Obama’s proposal costing $700 billion less.

For some reason, the Post editors keep using the Obama numbers, which strike us as manipulated. But there you see the explanation for the oddness we noted last week, in which these two big papers use vastly different numbers as they discuss a major budget matter—a matter which has been at the center of our public discourse for months.

No one cares about any of this, of course. Is it $2 trillion, or $3.2 trillion? What difference could it possibly make? The difference is only $1.2 trillion! Given the norms of our broken discourse, that’s considered close enough for journalistic work.

Are you sure you understand this? More on this bollixed matter tomorrow, using Paul Krugman’s new column.

Special report: The fruit of a forty-year script!

PART 1—WRONG FROM THE START (permalink): How hapless are America’s journalistic elites? In last Thursday’s New York Times, Sabrina Tavernise—and her editors—skillfully managed to show us.

On page one of the “National” section, Tavernise penned a lengthy profile of the Baltimore City Public Schools under superintendent Andres Alonso, who took charge of the system in 2007. Her report was granted a rather large profile. Almost 1400 words long, it was accompanied by three large photos.

Nothing we say here is meant as a criticism of Alonso, who has only been on the job for three years. (Whatever one thinks of Alonso’s ideas, miracles can’t happen that fast.) Instead, we offer criticism of Tavernise, whose report is a masterwork of elite propaganda—and the fruit of a forty-year script.

Let’s start with the basic question: Have Baltimore’s schools improved under Alonso’s direction? We don’t have the slightest idea—and in the days since this report appeared, we’ve reviewed Baltimore’s passing rates on Maryland’s annual statewide tests and on the more reliable National Assessment of Education Progress (the NAEP).

But then, Tavernise herself has no idea if any such progress has occurred during Alonso’s short tenure. Instead of simply saying as much, she skillfully works from a decades-old script—a script designed to reassure readers about the performance of urban schools in certain approved circumstances. In line with that familiar old script, she showers praise on Alonso’s head, hailing his many “reforms,” implying that they have accomplished great things.

But are Baltimore’s schools really doing better? Have Alonso’s programs really “worked” in some way? Tavernise provides no serious evidence in support of this claim, which she plainly states and implies. She does provide evidence of a sad fact: All too often, journalists at our greatest newspaper can’t read, write, reason or cipher.

Alas! Judged as a piece of journalism, Tavernise’s report is wrong from the start—technically inept, slickly bungled. Right from the start, Tavernise paints a familiar old portrait, taken from a heartwarming script: Things were very bad in Baltimore. But things are much better now!

But are things better in Baltimore’s schools? What follows is Tavernise’s opening presentation. Sadly, this makes little sense:

TAVERNISE (12/2/10): For years, this city had one of the worst school systems in the country. Fewer than half its students graduated, enrollment had fallen precipitously and proficiency levels were far below the national average.

In 2007, the school board hired Andres Alonso, a Cuban immigrant with a Harvard degree and strong views on how to change things. In three years, he pushed through a sweeping reorganization of the school system, closing failing schools, slashing the central office staff by a third and replacing three-quarters of all school principals.

Not everyone likes Dr. Alonso’s methods, and many find that his brassy self-confidence can grate. But few are arguing with his results. Since he was hired, the dropout rate has fallen by half, more students are graduating and for the first time in many years, the system has gained students instead of losing them.

Wow! It sounds like something great is happening! (“Few are arguing with his results!”) Sadly, that presentation makes no apparent sense.

Start with that opening paragraph.

“For years,” Tavernise somewhat hazily says, Baltimore “had one of the worst school systems in the country.” Then, getting a bit more specific, she says that Baltimore’s “proficiency levels were far below the national average” during those fallow years.

So how about it—is it true? Did Baltimore really have “one of the worst school systems in the country” in the years before Alonso arrived? That is a matter of judgment—and of semantics. That said, Baltimore’s “proficiency levels” were almost surely “far below the national average” in the years before Alonso arrived—over the previous several decades, in fact.

But uh-oh! Might we note an unfortunate fact? Baltimore’s proficiency rates are still “far below the national average”—or at least, they were in 2009, the last year for which we have data. In 2009, Baltimore took part, for the first time, in the Trial Urban District Assessment, a relatively new component of the NAEP; the city scored near the middle among the roughly dozen big-city systems which took part in that year’s assessment. (By way of example: Baltimore scored behind New York and Boston, ahead of Cleveland and Detroit.) But proficiency rates in almost all those big-city systems “were far below the national average,” even in 2009. If that is our criterion, then almost all those systems currently rank among “the worst school systems in the country,” Baltimore included.

If we use the data from our most-respected testing program, Baltimore still has very low proficiency rates. And there is no way to chart improvement (or lack of same), given Baltimore’s one-time participation in this program.

Well then, how about Baltimore’s proficiency rates on the state of Maryland’s annual testing? On face, the system’s proficiency rates have improved under Alonso—but proficiency rates were also improving in the years before Alonso arrived, at roughly as fast a pace. The kicker here is the uncertainty which now surrounds testing programs in the various states. In fact, proficiency rates have improved all over Maryland in the past ten years; Baltimore’s gains have basically tracked the year-to-year gains (with occasional losses) recorded all over the state. Do those steady gains in proficiency rates represent real academic growth? Or do they possibly represent changes in the difficulty of the tests—a problem which has plagued state testing programs all over the nation? There is no easy way to say—and Baltimore’s gains before 2007 were as strong as those recorded in the years since Alonso arrived. At any rate, Tavernise never cites any data from the Maryland testing program. And she never reports a basic fact: Baltimore’s proficiency rates were steadily improving on these tests before Alonso arrived.

Can we talk?

In her opening passage, Tavernise works from a forty-year-old script, in which a charismatic principal (or superintendent) is said to have dramatically changed a floundering big-city school (or school system). But at no point does she offer any data indicating that Baltimore’s proficiency rates have improved under Alonso. Instead, she offers that silly third paragraph, in which she deals with a notoriously tricky statistic (drop-out/graduation rate), using alleged improvement as a marker of Alonso’s supposed success. That said: If fewer kids are dropping out during their high school years, does that mean that they—and their younger siblings—are actually reading and doing math better? At no point does Tavernise give any reason for believing that any such thing has occurred. Instead, she offers that silly third paragraph, in which she states, three different ways (see below), that the drop-out rate is now lower.

Has Alonso raised proficiency rates? At no point does Tavernise make such a claim. But reports like hers have never been designed to produce real analysis. For at least the past forty years, reports like this have been offered as acts of civic boosterism, designed to reassure the public about favored schools, school systems, superintendents and reform plans. In this case, it’s Alonso who is being favored and puffed, although that isn’t his fault.

“Few are arguing with his results,” Tavernise says—although she describes no “results” at all, beyond an alleged reduction in drop-out rate. More specifically, Tavernise never specifically claims that Baltimore’s “proficiency rates” have improved in the past three years. We’ll guess that few readers noticed this omission, since Tavernise skillfully implies that this type of improvement has occurred. But then, Tavernise is engaged in propaganda, not proof, in line with an ugly old press corps script which has worked to harm children for decades.

Can Baltimore’s children read, write, reason? Why demand such performance from them, when our nation’s most famous “journalists” “reason” as Tavernise does?

Tomorrow—part 2: Why puff Alonso?

The rule of three: Again, here is the principal passage where Tavernise describes Alonso’s “results.” Truly, this is just sad:

TAVERNISE: Not everyone likes Dr. Alonso’s methods, and many find that his brassy self-confidence can grate. But few are arguing with his results. Since he was hired, the dropout rate has fallen by half, more students are graduating and for the first time in many years, the system has gained students instead of losing them.

A casual reader may think he is reading a list of Alonso’s “results.” But if “the dropout rate has fallen,” then, presumably by definition, “more students are graduating.” Presumably, this will also explain, or help to explain, why the system is “gaining students.”

Presumably, it’s a good thing when the dropout rate declines. But Tavernise seems to have turned one “result” into three! Why would a journalist do that? Is this really cheerleading?