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Print view: Tavernise fawned about Baltimore's schools. From this, we take three basic lessons
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LESSONS LEARNED! Tavernise fawned about Baltimore’s schools. From this, we take three basic lessons: // link // print // previous // next //

Does anyone ever know anything around these United States: Reading this morning’s New York Times, we were struck by David Herszenhorn’s report about the tax cut bill. Here’s the way he started out. We’ll include the headline:

HERSZENHORN (12/17/10): Congress Sends $801 Billion Tax Cut Bill to Obama

Congress at midnight Thursday approved an $801 billion package of tax cuts and $57 billion for extended unemployment insurance. The vote sealed the first major deal between President Obama and Congressional Republicans as Democrats put aside their objections and bowed to the realignment of power brought about by their crushing election losses.

Put Herszenhorn’s instant “analysis” to the side; let’s concentrate on those numbers. How many people understand what is found in this bill? Let’s try to answer that question from the liberal perspective.

Herszenhorn breaks the package down into two components. Presumably, most liberals would approve of the $57 billion for extended unemployment insurance. This leaves $801 billion in tax cuts, Herszenhorn says. (The headline describes the measure as an “$801 billion tax cut bill.”)

Let’s break those tax cuts down:

For starters, how many liberals understand that $137 billion of those “tax cuts” represents two years of adjustments to the Alternative Minimum Tax—a “fix” the Congress enacts every year, with complete bipartisan agreement? We’re not saying this is a good or bad thing; we’re merely saying that this adjustment occurs every year, and would have occurred this year in the absence of any larger package or plan. As such, the inclusion of the annual “fix” in this package tends to disguise the actual size of the package. (In 2009, the annual “fix” was included in Obama’s stimulus plan. There too, for good or ill, this distorted the actual size of what Obama had wrought.)

Taking away the AMT fixes, this reduces the size of the Obama “tax cuts” to $664 billion. This is the size of the things Obama has done which wouldn’t have happened anyway, without a word of comment.

Our question: How well do you understand the way that $664 billion breaks down? In particular, how much of that amount stems from extension of the “middle-class tax cuts”—tax cuts Obama always favored, with little liberal opposition? How much of that sum stems from the “tax cut for the rich?” Continuing, how much of that total stems from the one-year cut in payroll taxes? How much stems from the estate tax provision?

How does that $664 billion break down? Scanning two of our major national newspapers, it’s amazingly hard to find out. As best we can tell (using Nexis), the New York Times has never reported how much of the cost of this package stems from the so-called “middle-class tax cuts.” As best we can tell, the Times hasn’t reported how much of the sum stems from the “tax cut for the rich.”

On December 10, the paper of record did suggest that the estate tax provision “would result in $68 billion in lost tax revenue compared with letting the tax reset to pre-2001 levels.” On December 13, the paper reported that the one-year reduction in payroll tax “will cost $112 billion.” In this way, the paper accounts for $180 billion of that $664 billion. But we can’t find the paper reporting how much those other, widely-discussed provisions would actually cost. Nor can we find this information reported by the Washington Post, although Shailagh Murray reported this on December 14:

MURRAY (12/14/10): The package would add $858 billion to deficits over the next decade, according to congressional estimates. The bulk of the cost—about $545 billion—would come from a two-year extension of income tax reductions enacted in 2001, as well as provisions to adjust the alternative minimum tax for inflation through 2011, sparing more than 20 million mostly middle-income taxpayers from sharply higher tax payments in the spring.

Subtracting the $137 billion for the AMT, this suggests that extending the Bush tax rates represented $408 billion of the total. (Just this once, we’ll let you ask us about our arithmetical methods.) As best we can tell, the Post’s reporters have never broken that down into its two components (“middle-class” versus “rich”).

Our point? Here as always, it’s amazing to see how little our discourse is driven by information. All over the country, people are screeching about these various provisions—yet these two famous papers have made little effort to report their various costs. Taking away the AMT fixes, $664 billion in “tax cuts” seem to be lodged in this bill. But how do the costs break down? As best we can tell, these newspapers haven’t bothered to report such basic facts. Meanwhile, a great deal of additional confusion is introduced by the logic of this situation, in which the continuation of existing tax practice is persistently described as a “tax cut.” (There are reasons for speaking that way, but confusion is churned all the same.)

Do you understand what Obama has wrought? Do you feel sure that anyone does?

About that estate tax: Again, we’ll recommend this op-ed piece by Ray Madoff, a piece which concerns the estate tax. For years, we’ve marveled at how hard it is to find a description of the way this tax works. For example, do you know the answer to this question: If Paris Hilton inherits a billion dollars, does she have to pay any tax on the amount she is handed? If she’s handed a billion bucks, does she get to keep the full billion?

It’s amazingly hard to find the answer to that bone-simple question. Years ago, we pored through Bill Gates Sr.’s instructive book about the estate tax; we couldn’t even find the answer in that! Madoff seems to semi-imply the answer as he makes his basic recommendation: Democrats should “get rid of the estate tax altogether—but at the same time arrange for inherited wealth to be subject to income tax.” Careful, though! Even that may be misleading.

Does anyone ever know anything around these United States? Basically, the answer is no—in part, because liberal elites have persistently been too lazy, too dumb, too baldly uncaring to undertake the difficult work of developing and disseminating information and frameworks. For forty years, the other side has aggressively spread types of disinformation around. Our side has sat around twiddling thumbs—and then, we occasionally wail.

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

PART 4—LESSONS LEARNED (permalink): Are Baltimore’s public schools doing better since Andres Alonso took charge?

Sabrina Tavernise seemed to give that impression when she profiled Alonso in the December 2 New York Times (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/8/10). “For years, this city had one of the worst school systems in the country,” she wrote in her opening paragraph. “[P]roficiency levels were far below the national average.” A bit later on, she described the mayhem before Alonso took charge—became superintendent—in 2007:

TAVERNISE (12/2/10): When the school board offered him the job of superintendent in 2007, [Alonso] took it without ever having set foot in the city. Nine commissioners met him three times in different places in Maryland, in order to avoid talk that he was leaving his job in New York.

''It's a test case for what's possible,'' Dr. Alonso said. ''There were incredible opportunities because the troubles were so big.''

The system had churned through six superintendents in six years, so Dr. Alonso's priority was to persuade people that things would be different this time. For his changes to work, he needed a lot of support, but that took some convincing.

''The community felt alienated,'' said Bishop Douglas I. Miles, a pastor at Koinonia Baptist Church and a major sponsor of youth programs in the city. ''There was a sense that we weren't wanted except to do bake sales.''

Poor Baltimore! For years, the city’s proficiency levels were far below the national average. And not only that! Before Alonso took charge, the city had endured six superintendents in just six years! What Tavernise doesn’t say is the following: In at least the four years before Alonso took charge, Baltimore’s proficiency rates were rising on the state of Maryland’s annual tests. In the three years since Alonso took charge, proficiency rates have continued to rise—at roughly the same rate.

There’s no way to know if those rising rates simply reflect easier tests.

For various reasons, it’s hard to know what to make of Baltimore’s improved passing rates, before and after Alonso arrived. But all through her high-profile portrait, Tavernise openly fawns to Alonso, in ways we’ve already discussed. And her fawning follows a forty-year script: In this familiar pseudo-journalistic tale, an energetic reformer takes over a school (or now, a school system) and seems to make miracles happen.

Nothing we say here is meant as criticism of Alonso, who didn’t write the profile in question. But as we pondered this fawning profile, we took away three major lessons. Incomparably, we’ve discussed these lessons many times in the past:

Instruction doesn’t seem to matter: Tavernise never explicitly claims that Alonso has improved academic performance, although she gives that impression right from her opening paragraph. In this type of fawning profile, the journalist will typically run through a list of changes the subject has allegedly made—changes which explain the improvement he has allegedly wrought. Discussing Alonso, Tavernise discusses his outreach to the community; she also discusses changes concerning the suspension of students and changes he has made concerning budget decision-making.

Inevitably, she also discusses a wonderful change in which Baltimore teachers have agreed to be “compensated based on performance, not longevity.”

At no point does Tavernise offer evidence that these reforms have actually “worked”—that they have actually led to improved academic achievement. But something else can’t be found in this piece. At no point do we read about any changes Alonso has made regarding instruction. How should deserving low-income children be taught, starting on Day One of kindergarten? At no point does Tavernise suggest that Alonso has made any changes in this basic part of the deal.

We don’t mean this as a criticism of Alonso, who may have prompted pedagogical changes which Tavernise simply skipped past. But again and again when we read these profiles, the most basic parts of a school system—curriculum, instructional method—escape any mention at all. In fact, today’s “educational reformers” often seem to have no real ideas in these basic areas. Know-nothing journalists, knowing nothing, don’t seem to notice this flaw.

The lovely shall be fawned to: “The lovely shall be choosers,” Frost wrote—and the favored shall be fawned to. Why did the New York Times choose to fawn to Alonso, in the absence of any specific claim that his reforms have actually “worked?” We can’t necessarily answer that question. But it’s hard to doubt that the answer lurks in this brief shining paragaraph:

TAVERNISE: [Baltimore] is a particularly stark laboratory for urban school reforms. It is a fraction of the size of New York, where Dr. Alonso was a deputy to Chancellor Joel I. Klein, and more troubled than Washington, whose many private schools and status as the nation's capital have complicated overhaul efforts.

As we’ve noted, it’s hard to make sense of Tavernise’s dramatic claim that Baltimore “is a particularly stark laboratory for urban school reforms.” But in the world of know-nothing education journalism, “school reform” is now synonymous with the types of approaches favored by Chancellor Klein and his high-profile associates, including former Washington chancellor Michelle Rhee. To scribes at the Washington Post and the New York Times, these “reformers” are presumed to be right in virtually every approach. As a result, their efforts will be fawned to, even in reports which make no specific claims about actual academic success created by their approaches.

Urban schools need (reliable) annual tests: We’ve often said that we can’t imagine running an urban school system without (reliable) annual tests. Tavernise’s fawning report helps show why we say that.

Baltimore does conduct annual testing, though we’re not sure the tests in question—the Maryland statewide tests—are truly reliable at this point. In recent years, several major states, including New York, have renounced past results from their statewide testing programs; we’re not sure that Maryland’s tests can be assumed to be better. At any rate, Tavernise makes no attempt to discuss the gains in passing rates which have occurred in Baltimore during Alonso’s tenure. This doesn’t stop her from implying that great gains have occurred during his short, three-year reign.

Translation: Absent reliable testing programs, big school systems and their cheerleaders can tell the public just about anything about the success they’ve engendered. In this case, Tavernise paints a glowing portrait in the absence of any attempt to examine testing data. If city school systems had no tests at all, such claims would be made all the time, by the self-impressed systems themselves and by their fawning allies.

Children in urban school systems matter. At least once a year, their parents deserve to be given a rough idea how their children are doing in school. Absent reliable testing programs, anyone can—and will—tell these parents any darn thing they please.

We the people are in the same boat. Absent hard, reliable data, the public can be told any darn thing about the progress in urban schools. Tavernise makes this all too clear in her dumb, fawning report.

This report is the fruit of a tired old script. Scribes have fawned about (favored) urban schools for decades, misleading us all in the process.