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WHY HER STORY MATTERS! We tried to learn why Rhee’s story had changed. Here’s why that actually matters: // link // print // previous // next //

When fiery liberal dogs fail to bark: By last night, the fever had broken. Pundits stopped imagining, parsing, speculating, pretending about Obama’s troubling ties to Blago. Instead, they discussed purpose-driven gay-bashing—and Caroline Kennedy’s background, of course. After a deeply disturbing delay, they’ll get their report from Obama on Blago at the start of next week. Which is disturbing, of course.

That said, pundits staged ten days of punishing nonsense as they speculated, imagined and parsed. And here’s the good news: All over the web, liberals and progressives pushed back hard, often doing so with great skill. Well—all over certain parts of the web. In certain other precincts, those fiery liberal dogs didn’t bark.

We know, we know—they’re our “nominal allies.” But we thought you might want to know what occurred at one fiery site.

For us, it began late last Friday. Posting at Tapped, Tim Fernholz criticized the press corps’ clowning in the prior four days. And yet, his criticism of the press was restricted to one parenthetical remark, in a longer post about an Ed Rendell comment. And uh-oh! Though he did criticize the press, he framed his criticism thusly:

FERNHOLZ (12/12/08): Which is not to say Rendell's criticism [of Obama’s team] is incorrect; the Obama team's handling of the issue has been almost as bad as the media's reporting on it. (Those failures were best expressed here: "So, the US Attorney who is going after Blagojevich says there is absolutely no evidence Barack Obama has done anything wrong. This, naturally, is bad news for Barack Obama.")

Quite correctly, Fernholz said the media’s reporting had been “bad.” But in the same breath, he said this: “the Obama team's handling of the issue has been almost as bad.” But what had Obama’s team done wrong? We had no idea—and Fernholz didn’t say. But then, we think you’ve seen these constructions before: On the one hand, the press corps was wrong. On the other hand, so was Obama!

To us, this was an odd (but sadly typical) post, after four days in which many liberals had pushed back, with considerable skill, against the press corps’ clowning. But then, a question popped into our heads: How many of the other fiery liberals at Tapped had criticized the press corps at all? And sure enough, when we scrolled back, we got a sadly predictable answer: As best we could tell, Fernholz’s post represented the very first time anyone had criticized the press corps at all! Nor could we find such criticism in the American Prospect’s articles, or on Ezra Klein’s site.

This week, the Group Disinterest continued, with one exception: On Tuesday, A. Serwer posted this dead-on complaint about a New York Post column by Kirsten Powers. But aside from that, the silence continued. That’s a tremendous amount of disinterest from a large group of fiery liberals. (On Wednesday, Serwer completely vindicated himself, offering this plainly intelligent post on a different topic.)

Let’s be clear: There’s no reason why any particular individual just has to address this topic. And of course, the professors will tell us: There’s almost surely a very good reason for all this liberal silence. But we think we’ve seen this movie before, at other times when the mainstream press has committed startling fouls. Example: When Time put Ann Coulter on its cover and massively fawned, many liberals pushed back hard on the web. But at career liberal sites, it was silent night. All was calm—and the future looked bright (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/28/05).

To our reckoning, career liberals seem to keep their traps shut when the press corps goes after your interests—and your leaders. We have a term for that silence: Dead weight. But almost surely, the professors will see right through that “take” on our nominal allies. There must be a high-minded reason, they’ll say, when fiery liberal dogs fail to bark.

Special report: School daze!

Part 4—Why her story matters: Sigh. Even after Obama’s election, what explains “the success that conservatives have enjoyed in framing arguments that leave Democrats and liberals at an automatic disadvantage?”

That quotation comes from E. J. Dionne’s column in this morning’s Washington Post. And sure enough! If you want to explain “the success that conservatives have enjoyed in framing arguments,” we’d advise you to read that very same column, in which Dionne discusses Arne Duncan’s role in the current education debate.

Dionne describes two warring camps (each of which have valid ideas for improving public schools, by the way). Duncan gets along with each camp, Dionne says. In this passage, Dionne describes the more “liberal” of the two warring camps:

DIONNE (12/19/08): When the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal and pro-labor think tank, circulated an education manifesto that focused on expanding the services for poor children available at public schools, Duncan signed on.

The statement, reflecting a view strongly held by teachers groups, rejected the idea that "schools alone can offset the full impact of low socioeconomic status on learning." It called for "high-quality early childhood and pre-school programs, after-school and summer programs, and programs that develop parents' capacity to support their children's education.”

This “liberal” camp wants to expand early childhood programs; it wants to teach low-literacy parents how to raise more successful kids. Those are both perfectly valid ideas. And as he continues, Dionne describes the (perfectly valid) ideas of the other, non-“liberal” camp:

DIONNE (continuing directly): But Duncan also signed a statement from the Education Equality Project associated with Joel Klein, the schools chancellor in New York City, and Michelle Rhee, the chancellor of the Washington, D.C., schools, both of them heroes to the tough-on-the-unions camp.

The statement called for "an effective teacher in every classroom, and an effective principal in every school, by paying educators as the professionals they are, by giving them the tools and training they need to succeed, and by making tough decisions about those who do not.”

This second camp wants “an effective teacher in every classroom, and an effective principal in every school.” Those are valid objectives too. But back to our question: Why does it remain so easy for conservatives to frame our public debates? Here’s one reason: All through this column, Dionne refers to this second camp—and this camp alone—as “reformers” in search of “reform.” In this way, he adopts the language of the conservative world—language which heavily tilts this debate against the more “liberal” camp. In Dionne’s column, firing bad teachers counts as “reform;” expanding pre-school doesn’t. In this way, big pundits help conservatives “frame arguments that leave Democrats and liberals at an automatic disadvantage.”

Read carefully, all the way to the end. In Dionne’s column, Michelle Rhee’s a reformer—but the EPI isn’t. With “liberals” like this on the Post’s bloated payroll, who needs anyone else?

This brings us to our topic today: The way Amanda Ripley profiled Rhee on the cover of last week’s Time.

Let’s be clear: Rhee may turn out to be an excellent superintendent of schools in DC. In our view, it’s OK that she’s inclined to bang heads (though she may be inclined to overdo it a tad); we think you should probably err on that side if you’re running a big urban system. But Rhee is a darling of press corps elites, who often know nothing about urban schools. That has led to some unfortunate journalism—as in this important passage from Ripley’s profile of Rhee:

RIPLEY (12/8/08): After Rhee graduated from Cornell University in 1992, she joined Teach for America. She spent three years teaching at Harlem Park Elementary, one of the lowest-performing schools in Baltimore. Her parents visited and were stunned by the conditions of the neighborhood. "The area where the kids lived reminded me of a scene after the Korean War," says her father Shang Rhee.

Rhee suffered during that first year, and so did her students. She could not control the class. Her father remembers her returning home to visit and telling him she didn't want to go back. She had hives on her face from the stress.

The second year, Rhee got better. She and another teacher started out with second-graders who were scoring in the bottom percentile on standardized tests. They held on to those kids for two years, and by the end of third grade, the majority were at or above grade level, she says. (Baltimore does not have good test data going back that far, a problem that plagues many districts, so this assertion cannot be checked. But Rhee's principal at the time has confirmed the claim.) The experience gave Rhee faith in the power of good teaching. Yet what happened afterward broke her heart. "What was most disappointing was to watch these kids go off into the fourth grade and just lose everything," Rhee says, "because they were in classrooms with teachers who weren't engaging them.”

Including its gratuitous slam at those bad fourth-grade teachers, that’s the classic foundational tale of the “Rhee is a Miracle Worker” myth. Except for one small fact: The miracle claims attributed to Rhee have been vastly downsized here. In Ripley’s telling, Rhee “started out with second-graders who were scoring in the bottom percentile on standardized tests”—but after two years of miraculous work, “the majority were at or above grade level.” But that is not what Rhee has said all through her flashy public career. Last year, the Washington Post’s Nikita Stewart actually quoted her long-standing, undocumented, boast:

STEWART (6/30/07): Rhee’s résumé asserts that the students made a dramatic gain: "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.”

On balance, that is a much more dramatic claim than the one Ripley described in Time. According to Rhee’s long-standing claim, she worked so major a miracle that ninety percent of her floundering students ended up “scoring at the 90th percentile or higher.” That is a truly astonishing claim—and, in Ripley’s profile of Rhee, that claim has been massively downsized.

That’s right, readers! “A majority” of kids “at or above grade level” is a much more modest claim than the claim which helped Rhee get where she is. So how about it? Has Rhee actually changed her claim? Twice last week, we e-mailed Ripley through the “Contact” mechanism on her web site, hoping we could find out:

E-MAIL: I'm wondering about the following passage from your Time profile of Michelle Rhee:

"The second year, Rhee got better. She and another teacher started out with second-graders who were scoring in the bottom percentile on standardized tests. They held on to those kids for two years, and by the end of third grade, the majority were at or above grade level, she says."

I'm wondering if that is an accurate account of something Rhee said in your interviews with her. I ask because Rhee has made much stronger claims about her students' achievement in the past. For example, on her resume, Rhee was still saying this in 2007: “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." That is a much stronger claim than the one you report.

I realize that you don't quote Rhee in that part of your profile, but I'm wondering if that was an accurate account of something Rhee said about her students' test scores. This would be for further treatment at my web site, The Daily Howler.

With thanks for any help you can give, [etc. and so forth and so on.]

We don’t know if Ripley got our request. But we got no reply.

Does this question actually matter? Yes, it does. Here’s why:

Dionne’s “reformers” build their world around the idea of improving the stock of public school teachers. This is a perfectly valid objective—although, in some hands, it can quickly devolve into brainless, old-school union-bashing.

To these heroic “reformers,” Rhee is a leading figure. And if you believe her self-glorying tales, you might start thinking that the only problem in low-income schools involves those lazy teachers. According to Rhee (and others like her), when teachers roll up and their sleeves and get to work, even the lowest-scoring kids end up in the top ten percent. If you really believe such inspiring tales, it’s hard to see why we should waste our time with all those other types of “reform.” We should just send high-minded Princeton kids into the schools and let the miracles happen.

Rhee may turn out to be a good superintendent—but no, we don’t believe her tale. And we think Wendy Kopp should go to jail for that crap she told Charlie Rose last summer (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/16/08). But Charlie just sat there and let her blab, with nothing resembling a real question asked. And this morning, Dionne restricts the use of the loaded term “reform” to Kopp and her tellers of tales.

It matters if Rhee’s hero tale is correct. Tales like that have created bogus ideas about low-income schools for the past forty years now. Unfortunately, Time sent an unschooled scribe to profile Rhee, and through some process or another, she vastly downsized Rhee’s long-standing claim—perhaps without even realizing. Last week, we asked her how this change had occurred. But in the world the Dionnes and Roses have built, you don’t really question “reformers.”

Meanwhile, low-income kids can go hang in the yard; our journalistic world is built around pleasing tales, not the real search for “reform.” Press elites have always found it pretty to believe pleasing tales like Rhee’s. For ourselves, we don’t believe her inspiring tale—and we think the search for real success will surely be hard, and quite long.

This just in from the ivory tower: Uh-oh! Both camps in Dionne’s column have valid objectives. But read back through the two sets of reforms. Neither group mentions instructional practice! Such fluff isn’t mentioned at all.