RIPLEY BELIEVES! Does Time magazine know squat from squadoodle concerning low-income schools? // link // print // previous // next //
TUESDAY, DECEMBER 16, 2008
Rick Sanchez parses hearty: Good God. Yesterday afternoon, the Obama office had just released its statement about the Blagojevich matter. On CNN, Rick Sanchez threw to Brianna Keilar, the channels most perfect blonde yet. She explained what the statement said:
When Sanchez heard talk of this distraction, he could restrain himself no more. Sanchez seems like a nice enough guy; in particular, weve never sensed that he has an offensive political agenda. But hes part of your nations D-plus elite. Sit back and watch as he parses the use of one key word. Watch him parse till he drops:
We cant show you the tape, but Sanchez plainly thought he had spotted a very key point. Sanchez was parsing till he droppedand showing us the pitiful state of this pitiful, D-plus elite.
Poor Sanchez! He seemed to think hed made quite a find when he spotted that key word, inappropriate. He quickly imagined himself grilling Obama: Does that imply that they did have discussions, but these discussions are, according to you, President-elect Obama, not inappropriate? Well yes, of course thats what that impliesand only a D-plus elite wouldnt know that! But Sanchez was almost instantly marveling at an interesting part of this matter: It almost seems with this story, Briannaand these happen all the timethat every time you cross one hurdle, there's still another one on the other side.
Indeed, that claim is right as rain, for reasons Digby explains in this post. When the press corps lets itself parse in such silly waysas Sanchez parses hearty here; as Gwen Ifill parsed hearty on Sundaythen there will always be another hurdle as some pointless story unfolds. Our D-plus elite will parse till they drop, endlessly dreaming up new sets of questions. And there will be nothing a pol can do to make their nonsense stop.
Again, we think of Gores 3/97 press conference about those fund-raising phone calls. He got all the facts out right away, just as journalists say pols must dobut in the process, he used a phrase the D-plus elite didnt care for. (No controlling legal authority. He said this meant no case law.) They asked him the same questions time and again, until he had used the phrase seven times (in 26 minutes). And then, although they had all the facts, they complained for years about his odd language, which hed used too many times.
The D-plus elite always knows to say this: If theyd just get out all the facts, the story would go away. But this scripted claim is laughably bogus, as Digby helps describe. Simply put, these stories end when our D-plus elite finds something else theyd rather parse. Yesterday, Sanchez parsed till he dropped about the word inappropriate. He seemed to think hed discovered something in the use of that one damning word.
By the way: To Keilars credit, she tried to inject a bit of sanity into this high-octane parsing. She noted that a lot of people have pointed out it wouldn't be unusual or even inappropriate for president-elect Obama's staff to be in touch with Governor Blagojevich's staff about Obama's replacement. But the young scribe seemed to know what she had to say first! This was Keilars full response, after her anchor parsed hearty:
That's not to say this doesn't create a question mark...because it does, Keilar agreed. (She then proceeded to echo her anchors D-plus parsing of that key word.) She seemed to know this was pure/perfect crap. But she knew she was part of a D-plus Village elitea well-scripted cohort, a clan.
Still coming: Which of your fiery nominal allies still havent said boo about this?
Part 2Ripley believes: Does Malcolm Gladwell know whereof he speaks? Frankly, we have no idea. In last weeks New Yorker, the famous scribe expounded, at length, about a serious educational issue (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/15/08). But does the scribe know squat from squadoodle when it comes to public schools? We thought his writing was suspiciously murky right from the startand, eventually, he offered the following. He was citing Eric Hanushek, a senior fellow at the (conservative) Hoover Institute:
Could the U.S. achieve a significant gain just by hiring some average teachers? That claim seems problematic to us in several ways. And we had absolutely no sense that Gladwell is qualified to assess it.
But so it often goesso it long has gonewhen big news orgs report on the schools. The thinking seems to go like this: Anyone who ever was in the fourth grade is qualified to expound at length about current fourth grade teaching. In fairness, a journalist who lacks a background in ed may still do excellent work in the area. But such scribes often seem to believe whatever blarney they may have been handedby whichever educational clique may seem most cool to the press at that time. And alas! We thought of this problem when we explored Amanda Ripleys recent cover story in Timeher intriguing profile of DC public schools chief Michelle Rhee.
For better or worse, Ripley is not an education writer. In this, the bio from her own blog, she says that she currently covers risk and homeland security for TIME Magazine from Washington, DC. Ripley has also been integrally involved in TIMEs Person of the Year cover stories, this bio says. Beyond that, Ripleys blog offers this account of her background as a journalist:
To state the obvious, theres nothing wrong with any of thatquite the opposite. But Ripley doesnt breathe a word about any background in educational issues. And as with Gladwell, so with Ripley: When we read her profile of Rhee, we thought that lack of background began to show through.
How limited in Ripleys background in ed? Before we review something from her Time piece itself, consider this short post from her blog about the assignment to profile Rhee. As she linked to her cover story, Ripley described her own lack of backgroundand she made puzzling claims about public schools, seeming to think they were obvious:
Clearly, Ripley came to this topic as a bit of a novice; the things she encountered while working with Rhee came to her as a revelation.
Theres nothing wrong with that lack of backgroundbut Ripley is soon tossing off claims, right in this paragraph, which strike us as quite remarkable. Her statement about the effects of three bad teachers in a row strikes us as a bromide from a bubble-gum wrapperbut that final, highlighted claim is the one we find most remarkable. I had not realized that the difference in test scores between white and minority kids goes awaytotally vanishesif they both have effective teachers for a few years, Ripley writesand she seems to regard this as a well-known fact, an established fact that only she had somehow weirdly missed. And yet, we have no idea why Ripley believes that claim, or what exactly she thinks the claim means. Does it mean that minority kids from low-income, low-literacy backgrounds will typically be working on traditional grade level if they just have effective teachers for a few years? That such kids will typically overcome the substantial deficits they bring with them, through no fault of their own, on the first day of first grade? Thats the kind of feel-good idea which has driven the know-nothing writing of mainstream journalists for the past forty years. But what is the evidence for this idea? If Ripley failed to realize this was true in the past; why has she come to believe its true now? Lacking any background in education, Ripley seems to find this claim so obvious that she makes no attempt to explain or source it. And then, in her actual profile of Rhee, she went on to make the following claim. Somewhat oddly, she, like Gladwell, is citing Hanusheks research. (Like Gladwell, she places Hanushek at Stanford, not at the famously conservative Hoover Institute):
The key word in that highlighted passage is average, though this may not have occurred to Ripley, given her lack of background. But for the record: In schools where kids are struggling to read and subtract, superintendents like Rhee are dealing with many kids who cant sensibly be described as average, if its their educational profile we are discussing. Heres the way the Center for American Progress described their plight, in a formulation weve cited many times in the past:
Those kids arent average on the day they start schooland they surely arent average when they hit the fourth grade. In an important New York Times magazine piece, Paul Tough explained something else (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/1/06)when it comes to their educational profiles, these deserving kids are no longer average by the time theyre 3 years old:
Findings like that help explain why educational leaders may want to expand preschool educationor may want to conduct programs teaching low-income parents how to raise their kids for academic success. But: Under current circumstances, is Ripleys claim true for these kids toonot just for kids who are average? If these kids get an effective teacher, the kind who ranks among the top 15 percent of all teachers, will they too be scoring well above grade level on standardized tests by the time [they are] 11? We dont have the slightest idea; were quite sure that Ripley doesnt know either. And yet, there we see her confident statement, as she tells the world what all scribes know to say: That Rhee, their new god, is correct.
This is not a criticism of Rhee; Rhee didnt write (or edit) this report. It isnt a criticism of Hanushek, whose research is surely well worth consulting. But: Did Amanda Ripley know whereof she spoke? Or did she simply believe some chic things she was told? If you care about low-income schools, youll care about questions like that.
TomorrowPart 3: Oddly, all from the same hymnal.