Howling Dog Graphic
Point. Click. Search.

Contents: Archives:

Search this weblog
Search WWW
Howler Graphic
by Bob Somerby
E-mail This Page
Socrates Reads Graphic
A companion site.

Site maintained by Allegro Web Communications, comments to Marc.

Howler title Graphic
Caveat lector

31 October 2000

Our current howler (part II): Maybe it's all for the best

Synopsis: The press corps passed on two major topics. But maybe it's all for the best.

Critics Say a Focus on Test Scores Is Overshadowing Education in Texas
Jim Yardley, The New York Times, 10/30/00

A Shift in Stance on Global Warming Theory
Andrew Revkin, The New York Times, 10/26/00

With Gore, It's Back to the Familiar
John Harris, The Washington Post, 10/27/00

Kudos to Jim Yardley for his detailed article about the Texas schools in yesterday's Gotham Times. But the article points to how much we don't know. Read this, late in the piece:

YARDLEY: The issue of dropouts cuts directly to Mr. Bush's promise that the system "leave no child behind." State statistics show that the dropout rate is nearly 15 percent, higher among blacks and Hispanics, while other studies question the state's counting system and put the rate above 30 percent.

Odd, isn't it? Governor Bush entered the race in June 1999; he has consistently held up the Texas schools as one of his basic achievement. Seventeen months later, the Times doesn't know if the dropout rate is 15 percent, or more than 30? Yardley continued:

YARDLEY (continuing directly): The El Paso Times published an investigation showing that more than 30,000 students labeled by the system as "transfers" were most likely drop-outs. A study of big city schools by State Senator Gonzalos Barrientos, a Democrat, found that more incoming ninth graders dropped out than graduated on time.

Is that true? The next paragraph caught our eye:

YARDLEY: Education officials disputed these findings and said the state began a program to track dropouts in 1998. The program will not become known until 2003.

The state "began a program" in 1998, and will have its results in 2003? Here at THE HOWLER, we're not big fans of bashing governors over education results. But does it sound like this system is expertly run? In a race where so much has been made of the education miracle, why hasn't this sort of thing been explored? Education is high on voter checklists.

Again, we're not big fans of bashing Govs for the way their ed departments function. But Bush has touted his focus on education, and the issues raised by the Texas schools have relevance all over the country. For example, why might those dropout rates be so high? Yardley flags one possibility:

YARDLEY: A discrimination lawsuit by a Mexican-American legal group argued that schools were intentionally holding back minority ninth-graders that they feared would fail the 10th grade test. These students, the lawsuit argued, often became dropouts.

"The test," of course, is the TAAS, the state-run exams which are tied to the pay of Texas superintendents. "Principals and teachers can also be rewarded, or punished, based on the scores," Yardley says. Anyone familiar with public schooling should know how risky such practices are. It's clear: When teacher pay and advancement are tied to a test, teachers begin to play around with results. They hold kids back to affect future scores. They keep low-achieving kids from taking the tests. And yes, they flat-out cheat as well. Yardley mentioned that also:

YARDLEY: The pressure to pass can be enormous; several districts have been caught cheating. Last year, the county attorney in Austin charged the city's school district and a top administrator with test tampering.

Trust us. When heavy pressure is applied to standardized tests, teachers and administrators cheat. They cheat in more ways than you know. (In our view, neither Bush nor Gore seems to understand this, based on their campaign proposals.) How bad does the cheating get? It is not uncommon for misguided teachers to erase wrong answers and put in the right ones. Documented cases exist all over the country; for a fee, testing companies will even scan answer sheets looking for unusual patterns of erasures. Have you ever read about that in the press? We'll bet you 200 points you have not. Newspapers simply hate stories like that, preferring feel-good tales about Schools That Work.

Are there problems in the Texas schools? The evidence suggests that there are. Is that any fault of Governor Bush? We don't have the foggiest notion. But the trends displayed in the Texas schools are being displayed all over the nation; an evaluation of the Texas schools could have helped us learn valuable things. But little interest ever resulted from articles like the one Yardley wrote. We'll invite you to recall when you last saw Brian and Chris discuss this big thing, which does matter.

(Note: Last week's RAND study suggested that the ballyhooed score gains on the state-run TAAS test have not been matched on the nationally-run NAEP—which is professionally proctored, by the way. The study didn't really tell us how Texas kids do compared to kids nationwide. It did suggest that the state's testing program has not been run professionally. Again, it's absurd to think that a governor should know the nuts and bolts of educational testing. But this information is relevant to the Bush campaign's claims—and it has been on the record since March, unexamined. Other Govs might have come to know more—if the press corps had stopped talking earth tones.)

Yep. We could have learned a lot about public schools in this year's election. But there's another topic that has gone unexplored, this one suggested by Gore. Last week, the Times reported that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an international panel of climate scientists, has concluded that greenhouse gases are indeed affecting the earth's climate. Andrew Revkin wrote the paper's report:

REVKIN: One of [the report's] most striking findings is its conclusion that the upper range of warming over the next 100 years could be even higher than it estimated in 1995, in a worst case raising the average global temperature 11 degrees Fahrenheit from where it was in 1990...In its 1995 analysis, the panel concluded that a worst-case scenario would raise temperatures 6.3 degrees.

Yikes! The study, which will be released next year, "represents the closest things to a consensus possible in science," according to Revkin's report.

Global warming could have been put on the table in this election by Gore's 1992 book, Earth in the Balance. But perhaps we should be glad that it wasn't. In the aftermath of last week's report, John Harris of the Washington Post talked about the subject:

HARRIS: How much to stress global warming has been a question vexing Gore's campaign since its inception. With occasional exceptions, the strategy has been to soft-pedal the issue.

The fear was that the Draconian rhetoric in Gore's 1992 book "Earth in the Balance," which calls for abolition of the internal combustion engine early this century...might offend pro-business moderates. Late in the campaign, however, circumstances have turned Gore's identification with global warming policy into timely politics as well, his campaign decided today.

Sigh! Gore's book did not call for "abolition" of the internal combustion engine, however entertaining it has been to say so. The book said—apparently correctly—that it "ought to be possible" to phase out the IC. "[I]t ought to be possible to establish a coordinated global program to accomplish the strategic goal of completely eliminating the internal combustion engine over, say, a twenty-five year period," Gore wrote. Gore didn't propose "abolishing" anything, and it's perfectly clear that Gore was talking about replacing internal combustion with other technology. All world car companies now agree that internal combustion is on the way out (links below). Whenever one looks at the silly way the press corps writes about things that matter, one can't avoid a certain conclusion. Maybe it's better that our journalists stick to the candidates' outfits and personality tics. It's odd how much we never discuss. But perhaps we all gain by subtraction.

Visit our incomparable archives: Wither/whither the internal combustion engine? See THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/29/99, 5/3/99, 5/24/99, 2/9/00.