SCHOOL DAZE! Does Gladwell know squat about public schools? At this point, is knowledge required? // link // print // previous // next //
MONDAY, DECEMBER 15, 2008
It all depends on what the meaning of we is: This Sunday, it was Gwen Ifill, on This Week, who parsed until she dropped. In what follows (her very first statement), Ifill parsed and ponderedplayed Pilate himselfabout the Blagojevich matter.
The lady was asked about her recent interview with David Axelrod, Obamas top adviser. In the utterly sad oration which followed, we see the hapless work so typical of our least impressive elite:
Or, as Pilate asked: What is truth? Pilate, of course, was serving Rome. Who does Ifill serve?
It would be hard to imagine a more fatuous presentation than the one Ifill uncorked. Who did Axelrod mean by we? Since Ifill had actually interviewed the guy, she could, of course, have asked him! Instead, she waited until she reached network TV, where she authored a classic bit of boneheaded, upper-end parsing. Most egregiously, she suggested types of involvement from types of players which no one has ever alleged.
Good God! Does we mean people who are friends of the Obamas who appointed themselves emissaries, as is alleged about Jesse Jacksons involvement? As everyone knew before Ifill spoke, there has been no suggestion of any kind that any friends of the Obamas engaged in any such conduct. (Nor is it clear, in any way, that Jackson himself had any such involvement.) But so what? Ifill, on the national stage, let her imagination run free. But as you know, they parse/ponder/speculate and imagine. Its how they have long played their game.
In a more rational world, people like this would be dragged from the stage and given a good public re-education. But alas! You live instead in the world of the Village! To see our most hapless elite at work, visit This Weeks sitejust click hereand review the sad piece of tape dubbed, Roundtable: Blago Fallout.
Major journalists have engaged in this sort of nonsense for a solid week now. On Friday, Jamison Foser kept pushing back hard, in this superb post at Media Matters. On Sunday, Steve Benen authored this fine post, and Kevin Drum channeled the early Gene Lyons (while giving us an assignment well skip, thanks to the efforts of so many others). But readers! Who still wont complain on your behalf? Sadly, tomorrow, well tattle again, about some of your nominal allies.
Which fiery liberals wont push back? Readers! Must you ask?
Extra credit: For Lynn Sweets account of Ifills session with Axelrod, you know what to dojust click here. Absent-mindedly, Ifill forgot to ask what Axelrod meant by we.
Your Howler gets results: On Friday, Rachel Maddow toughened her account of who has been playing this tired old gamethe same game they played against Clinton, then Gore, thus sending George Bush to the White House:
Phew! That account came right in the nick of time! Earlier in that program, Maddow said this, making the analysts cry:
The analysts cried when she blamed the right wing. Later, though, they lustily cheered when Maddows indictment broadened.
But when will Foser and Boehlert appear on this show? Or, to put it another way: When will the truth come to cable?
Part 1Gladwell, unblinking: Who will Obama pick to be Secretary of Education? Some slightly-odd writing has surfaced of late as big mainstream news orgs ponder this question. The writers often have little background in education issuesand their lack of experience often shows. One other attribute tends to show up: The way these mainstream scribes sometimes seem to be in thrall to conservative educational notions.
Theres nothing automatically wrong with conservative educational ideas, of course. But something is a little bit wrong with uninformed public ed writing.
For starters, consider this piece by Malcolm Gladwell in last weeks New Yorker. Gladwell ponders a worthwhile question: How could school districts improve their performance in deciding which new teachers to hire? According to Gladwell, its hard to review a college graduates resume and determine if he or she will become a good teacher. How might school districts do a better job picking applicants who turn out to be top-notch teachers?
As he starts, Gladwell compares this to a problem from the world of sports: Football scouts have a hard time knowing which college quarterbacks will succeed at the NFL level. How might school districts address their version of this problem? This is the perfectly sensible question Gladwell attempts to address.
Gladwell discusses a serious issuebut does he have the chops to do so? He starts with ruminations about quarterbacksbut what follows is his very first paragraph about public education. And his reasoning here strikes us as odd. Frankly, it makes us wonder if he might be somewhat over his head discussing public school issues:
Lets see if we have fully grasped the reasoning found in that passage:
According to Gladwell, two classes were even at the start of the yearbut by the end of the school year, one of the classes was doing much better. Our question: Why would it take one of the most important tools in contemporary educational research to deduce that this groups teacher had been more effective as a teacher? Why would we need an important tool in educational researcha theory, no lessto draw such an obvious conclusion? Has any principal ever lived who wouldn't have reached this obvious judgment? The conclusion here is comically obvious. But its buried beneath some ponderous talk about contemporary research and important research tools.
But then, were often struck by writing like that when mainstream journalists proclaim about public schools. In fairness, we might say that Gladwell has merely constructed an exceptionally simple example to illustrate some larger pointthough were not sure what that point might be. Who wouldnt use standardized test scores to look at how much the academic performance of students in a given teachers classroom changes between the beginning and the end of the school year? We started teaching fifth grade in Baltimore in 1969. And sure enough! Not being the dumbest humans on earth, everyone in our low-income school was doing this, even back then.
So that opening paragraph made us wonder a bit about Gladwells competence in this area. But we were also struck by his third paragraph about the schools. Our view? In this passage, the gentlemans lack of background really does seem to show through:
In that passage, Gladwell starts considering a serious policy question: Should money be used to reduce class size? Or would such money be better spent attracting more capable teachers? On that question, we have no view. But were not real sure that Gladwells the man to help us sort it out.
In the sentences we have highlighted, Gladwell claims to be paraphrasing Hanushek, who is actually a senior fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution, not a lowly faculty member at miserable Stanford itself. Theres nothing wrong with working at Hoover, of course, and Hanusheks research and views are surely well worth considering. (In recent weeks, hes certainly had a lot of success getting mainstream scribes to recite them!) But does that slightly puzzling, highlighted passage really reflect something Hanushek said? The students of a very bad teacher will learn, on average, half a years worth of material in one school year? And: The students in the class of a very good teacher will learn a year and a halfs worth of material? Well take a guess: That might mean that an average student (a kid near the fiftieth percentile in reading or math) will typically learn that much in those situationsalthough the statement means almost nothing until were told how many teachers qualify as very good and very bad. Did Hanushek really say something like this: On average, students will learn three times as much from a very good teacher? We have no clue, but Gladwells presentation is mired in the murk and the gloam.
In short, that presentationby Gladwell, not Hanushekis thoroughly lacking in clarity. Does this reflect a lack of chops on Gladwells part when it comes to educational issues? We have no way of judging that just from this piece. But in the mainstream upper-end press corps, journalists often orate at length about public schoolseven though they seem to have no background in the area at all. And uh-oh! Such people may be inclined to believe whatever dang-fool thing they get told.
As weve said, Gladwell ponders a worthwhile questionand that may be the problem. He ends up making a somewhat eccentric suggestion about teacher recruitmenta suggestion he seems to source to no one but himself. And the validity of his suggestion turns, almost completely, on his unblinking acceptance of (paraphrased) claims about the fruits of Hanusheks research. This is the passage where Gladwells rubber really starts hitting the road:
Could the U.S. really produce some sort of major change simply by replacing the bottom six per cent to ten per cent of public-school teachers with teachers of average quality? We dont have the slightest idea, although were hugely dubious. But we note that Gladwells claim is based on a paraphrased account of something Hanushek supposedly saida claim Hanushek supposedly based on a back-of-the-envelope calculation. Once again, were forced to rely on Gladwells basic chops in such matters.
Does Gladwell know what hes talking about? Does he have a suitable background for such ruminations? Were not surebut in the world of mainstream journalism, reporters and editorialists often expound on educational matters, often without showing the slightest sign of anything like expertise. And oh yes: In the current climate surrounding the schools, they will often be found recommending conservative viewsand showing that the word reform now extends to conservatives only.
When it comes to public education, theres absolutely nothing wrong with conservative ideas and perspectives. But in the world of the mainstream press, many things are often wrong with the way these ideas get reviewed. In recent weeks, a bit of a tipping point has been reached in the way this familiar old game is played. Did Gladwell know whereof he spoke? Were not surebut then again, how about Times Amanda Ripley?
TomorrowPart 2: Why did Ripley say that?