Update: Part 3 is now included.
Special report: Back-to-school week!And now, Part 2:
PART 1—EASY TO BE EASY: In a recent column, Nicholas Kristof insightfully prayed that our “War on Brains” might be nearing an end. We’ll have an intelligent president, he said. Perhaps this fact will point the way to the end of this long, foolish war.
In his next column, Kristof turned to the problems of public schools—and he lightly scolded Obama:KRISTOF (11/12/08): President-elect Barack Obama and his aides are sending signals that education may be on the back burner at the beginning of the new administration. He ranked it fifth among his priorities, and if it is being downplayed, that’s a mistake.Easy to be hard! For ourselves, we’d say that “fifth” is fairly high on a list of priorities, given the problems Obama will face—and given the fact that very few pols know squat about public schooling. Nonetheless, Kristof continued his scolding, saying high-minded things—things everyone knows—about the great value of learning. Indeed, the scribe made a series of high-minded points which most folk can say in their sleep:KRISTOF (continuing directly): We can’t meaningfully address poverty or grow the economy as long as urban schools are failing. Mr. Obama talks boldly about starting new high-tech green industries, but where will the workers come from unless students reliably learn science and math?All right, all right! We’ll eat our greens! But as you might be able to guess, our curiosity only rose as Kristof’s light scolding extended through these high-minded opening grafs. Kristof wants Obama to pay more attention to urban schools. But what exactly does he think the new president should do or propose? What does he think Obama could do to improve these struggling schools?
The United States is the only country in the industrialized world where children are less likely to graduate from high school than their parents were, according to a new study by the Education Trust, an advocacy group based in Washington.
The most effective anti-poverty program we could devise for the long run would have less to do with income redistribution than with ensuring that poor kids get a first-rate education, from preschool on. One recent study found that if American students did as well as those in several Asian countries in math and science, our economy would grow 20 percent faster.
Alas! We had to read to the end of the piece before our question was answered. Like a student killing time when asked a question he couldn’t answer, Kristof began a long discussion—an interesting discussion—about the history of our public schools. There was stuff in there we’d never heard, relayed from a hot new book by two of them perfesser fellers. (“As late as 1957, only 9 percent of British 17-year-olds were enrolled in school.”) But what was Obama supposed to do? What should he do for our urban schools? Kristof was nearing the end of his piece—and he still hadn’t breathed a word.
If scholars want to read ahead, they can see what Kristof proposed. But we were struck by a tired old thought as we perused this familiar piece. Easy to be easy, we sagely mused, when it comes to offering high-minded thoughts about the ills of urban schools. Does Kristof know whereof he speaks? Should Obama act on the gentleman’s say? With an election safely concluded, we’ll ask such questions in upcoming posts in this, our “Back-to-school week.”
Monday—Part 2: What Kristof said—and Fred Hiatt.
Special report: Back-to-school week!And Part 3:
Part 2—Easy to be fatuous: Many scribes find it “easy to be hard” when they talk about public schooling (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/21/08). The rules of the game are fairly simple: They scold those troubling teachers’ unions—and the troubling pols who support them.
Beyond that, many scribes find it easy to churn perfect pap about public schools—to type tired bromides about “reform,” thus avoiding actual thought. The Washington Post took this standard approach in Saturday’s editorial:WASHINGTON POST EDITORIAL (11/22/08): Another [cabinet] selection that will merit scrutiny is Mr. Obama's education secretary: Will the choice reflect his stated commitment to reform? Will it be someone with hands-on experience in education and a proven willingness to experiment? While the new president's attention is understandably focused on the economy, not to mention the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it's critical to have someone who comes to the education post with those credentials.When it comes to Obama’s education secretary, the Post favors “reform”—it wants someone who’s “willing to experiment.” Meanwhile, everyone knows what these words mean when mainstream journalists discuss public schools. “Reform” means cracking down on teachers and teacher groups through ideas like merit pay and the ending of tenure. There may be some merit to these ideas—but few others seem to get mentioned.
In case we didn’t know what “reform” means in these parts of the Village, Fred Hiatt wrote a recent Post op-ed piece which made the point fairly clear.
It’s easy to be fatuous, we incomparably thought, after reading his column.
As usual, Hiatt’s piece took the form of a paean to DC schools chief Michelle Rhee. We mean that as a criticism of Hiatt, not of Rhee. Yes, this passage is utterly silly. But it was written by Hiatt:HIATT (11/10/08): Rhee is hardly anti-teacher. One problem, she says, is that "our good teachers have not been told that they're good." And she is committed to helping teachers "who have the will but are underperforming—that is essentially the biggest challenge for the District for the next couple of years."In a way, you can’t blame Hiatt for that sort of talk; it’s the type of chatter that’s routinely churned by “educational experts.” But Hiatt is being fatuous when he says that “every student can learn, write and do math” (whatever so vague an assurance might mean)—and he builds a straw man when he goes on to say that “their ability to do so should be measured.” (Few oppose sensible measurement.) Duh! The question isn’t whether “every student can learn;” the question is how much various students can learn, at what point in their public schooling. The larger question is what sorts of changes in instructional practice might help these students achieve these goals. Meanwhile, the desire to rush to the question of who’s “at fault” merely extends the problem. But Hiatt makes it clear, at the start of his piece, that fault and blame are driving his vision. He opens with an anecdote designed to show that Rhee is high-minded and good—while an unnamed principal is an uncaring villain. He then cranks out this standard text—although, within the Insider Press, churning such text is real easy:
But she won't compromise on the notion that every student can learn to read, write and do math; that their ability to do so should be measured; and that if they're not learning, it's not their fault—it's the schools'.HIATT: Rhee offers the ultimate in no-excuses leadership. She has taken on one of the worst public school systems in the nation and has pledged to turn it into one of the best within a decade. The usual excuses made for such schools—that they cannot possibly do better because their students are poor, or come from broken families, or haven't been read to, or are surrounded by crime—Rhee does not accept. She has seen such students learn, Rhee explains, in her own classroom in Baltimore in the early 1990s, and in many other schools since.Just as he drives a framework of “fault” and blame, Hiatt builds a framework in which people are looking for “excuses.” (It can’t be that they’re offering “explanations,” or describing real problems and obstacles.) Of course, it’s easy for pundits to say that we shouldn’t “accept...the usual excuses” about the progress of deserving students who may enter kindergarten far behind their middle-class peers. But those students’ achievements won’t increase just because Hiatt enjoys talking tough—because he churns familiar bromides as a replacement for thought. Once again, though, we have to cut Hiatt some slack, since he can quote “educational experts” saying the same goldarn things:HIATT: Kati Haycock, president of the nonprofit Education Trust, says Obama is "absolutely unequivocal on, 'Don't tell me black kids can't learn.' It comes directly from his gut." So maybe he will sympathize with Rhee's conclusion that patience, tact and compromise are inappropriate when half your kids or more never graduate from high school.We’re sure that Haycock is a fine person; Jonathan Kozol writes good things about her, and that’s good enough for us. But everyone knows that “black kids can learn” (whatever that vague assurance might mean); reciting this bromide makes “experts” seem noble, but it doesn’t make anyone smarter. The actual questions here are quite different: How much can this particular child learn, during this particular week, and what would be the best particular way to help him or her do that? Unfortunately, educational experts often like to cheerlead—and the Hiatts start acting like cheerleaders too. Soon, we find ourselves snarling at teachers, who surely must be “at fault” in these students’ “failure to learn.” (By which we presumably mean failure to learn enough.)
In the process, we may fail to notice how few real suggestions come from observers like Hiatt—other than the tired old bromides about things like merit pay.
In large measure, Hiatt’s piece concerns the wonders of merit pay—an idea which sometimes seem to have magical power in the world of the Village pundit. Who knows? Some form of merit pay may be a good thing—though we doubt that Hiatt has any idea, one way or the other. To our ear, his piece was the usual insider piece—a piece pundits churn again and again. He found it easy to be hard—when it came to those lazy teachers. When it came to the search for real ideas, he found it easy to be rather fatuous.
Meanwhile, his column turned—as these columns often do—on a certain miraculous tale. It’s easy to believe in miracles inside this mainstream celebrity press corps. When Post pundits talk about low-income schools, miracles tend to play a key role in their ruminations.
Tomorrow—Part 3: Easy to believe.
Special report: Back-to-school week!
Part 3—Easy to believe: It’s easy to believe—in miracles—when pundits discuss public schools. Example: In late October, Jay Mathews gushed over the “educational insurgency” of Michelle Rhee, the still-new chancellor of DC’s public schools. Indeed, he gushed over a entire “new generation of administrators, including Rhee,” who have “s[een] how teacher focus and energy could improve students' lives, and at the same time [have] learned how rare those traits were in low-income neighborhood schools.”
In Mathews’ piece, this is an heroic generation. To give you a fuller idea, here is Jay’s fuller description of this new generation of educators. This passage follows Jay’s account of a disappointing experience from Rhee’s brief (three-year) teaching career. There are heroes and villains in this portrait. It ain’t hard to see who they are:
MATHEWS (10/27/08): In an interview this month, Rhee said that jarring moment of hope followed by disappointment made her want to change the system. Many educators she knows who are also likely to run school systems someday tell similar stories. They saw how teacher focus and energy could improve students' lives, and at the same time they learned how rare those traits were in low-income neighborhood schools.
Such experiences create habits of mind and leadership qualities that inspire the most effective principals and teachers, but disturb many community leaders, politicians and educators who are used to standard operating procedures. This new generation of administrators, including Rhee, shares the prevailing cynicism about how school systems operate. But instead of going off to be lawyers, doctors or business executives as their parents wanted them to, they stay in education and violate or finesse normal processes.
You could call them the young entrepreneurs, the reformers, or maybe a name with appeal to friends and foes: the Brat Pack. They create excitement and enjoy a form of celebrity, but to many they are egregious annoyances. Rhee's new fame drew 700 applications last year from people who wanted to be principals in D.C. schools, hitherto not a popular spot for ambitious administrators. Her anti-bureaucratic instincts led her to dust off unused procedures for getting rid of unproductive teachers when the Washington Teachers' Union refused to accept such changes. Because she has seen improvisation work, she got outside foundation and university support for experiments—such as money for good grades—that others considered risky.
Of course, it’s mainly good to “get rid of unproductive teachers,” and “improvisations” like money-for-grades may have positive effects in some low-income schools—though no one who actually cares about outcomes will simply assume such a thing. For ourselves, we’re glad that Rhee has an aggressive leadership style—although we aren’t at all sure that her basic vision about low-income schooling is sound. But that’s a truly gushing portrait of Rhee and her insurgent “Brat Pack.” Its author seems remarkably sure of where the heroes are found.
That said, what makes Mathews feel so sure that the “Brat Pack” are the heroes? That their vision and their resultant approach are fundamentally sound? Here’s your answer: Rhee “has seen improvisation work,” Jay says. On that rock he builds his church. But is that foundation sound?
This brings us back to the foundational myth of the cult of Chancellor Rhee. As he starts his piece, Mathews recalls the disappointing moment which—as the story is endlessly told—fired Rhee’s unquenchable desire to “change the system.” Many pundits find it easy to believe in Rhee’s vision—and their apparent sense of certainty almost always turns on this tale. For ourselves, we were surprised to see Jay act as if this tale is established history. We were also surprised by the outright absurdity of some of what he describes:
MATHEWS: To understand D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee and the educational insurgency she is part of, you have to know what happened when she taught at Baltimore's Harlem Park Elementary School in the early 1990s.
The Teach for America program threw well-educated young people such as Rhee—bachelor's degree from Cornell, master's from Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government—into classrooms full of impoverished children after only a summer of training. “It was a zoo, every day," she recalled. Thirty-six children, all poor, suffered under a novice who had no idea what to do.
But within months, for Rhee and other influential educators in her age group, the situation changed. She vowed not "to let 8-year-olds run me out of town." She discovered learning improved when everyone sat in a big U-pattern with her in the middle and she made quick marks on the blackboard for good and bad behavior without ever stopping the lesson. She spent an entire summer making lesson plans and teaching materials, with the help of indulgent aunts visiting from Korea. She found unconventional but effective ways to teach reading and math. She set written goals for each child and enlisted parents in her plans.
Students became calm and engaged. Test scores soared. She kept one group with her for second and third grade. She was convinced that her students, despite their problems, "were the most talented kids ever." Then the real world intruded, a key moment for the entrepreneurial educators Rhee counts as friends. "All of those kids would go on to other teachers and totally lose everything because those teachers were" lousy. (Rhee used an earthier adjective.)
Jesus rose from the dead in three days—and under Rhee, “test scores soared.” This tale—of Rhee’s miracle cure—is told wherever her cult is sold. Plainly, Jay believes it’s true. At THE HOWLER, we pretty much don’t. (For the record: Rhee got her Harvard master’s degree after her three years of teaching.)
To understand Rhee, “you have to know what happened when she taught at Baltimore's Harlem Park Elementary,” Jay says. But what did happen in those three years; did miracles really occur? In our view, no one who actually cares about low-income schools will leap to such conclusions—or assume that the Brat Pack is on the right path because they have (allegedly) seen similar outcomes. As we’ve explained in the past, it isn’t clear—it isn’t clear at all—that Rhee produced the miracle cure she has boasted about all through her career (links below). And good God! Who but an adept could believe that miracles occur in the way Jay describes? Did no one but Rhee ever think of having her kids “sit in a big U-pattern with her in the middle?” Did no one else “ma[ke] quick marks on the blackboard for good and bad behavior without ever stopping the lesson?” Even assuming, as we do, that Rhee was a highly diligent teacher, the story Jay tells is the stuff of legend. This type of story is perfectly fine—in books written for eight-year-old kids. But it’s dangerous when we find it so easy to believe that we start revamping our low-income schools on the basis of such absurd tales.
In an e-mail, we asked Jay why he feels so sure that Rhee produced the astounding score gains she has boasted about through the years. In particular, we posed these questions about these alleged test scores—scores which couldn’t be documented or confirmed by the Baltimore schools at the time of her ascension to chancellor:
- Are you troubled by the fact that the scores were never produced?
- Did the Post ever ask the Baltimore schools to produce the scores?
Jay’s answers were helpful, though they leave some matters hanging. Here’s what he told us:
- Nope, because I have researched test scores at that period in other parts of the country, and nobody has them, particularly on a per teacher basis. This was way before the NCLB era. Her story is very close to what I have heard from other Teach for America teachers of that era whose work has since proved, in the NCLB era. that their scores were probably what they said they were.
- We did, and discovered what I said above. Rhee herself said she never saw any scores in writing. It was all informal chit-chat stuff, with the central office people the only ones who had lists, it seems.
Do the data from Rhee’s tenure still exist? We have no idea. At the time of Rhee’s ascension, the Washington Times seems to have pursued this matter a bit harder than the Post; in a paraphrased passage, reporter Gary Emerling said that Baltimore’s current testing director “said retrieving data from a decade ago is hard because his office changed its information storage systems for the year 2000" (our emphasis). Is retrieving these test scores hard—or impossible? We have no idea. (Emerling included some hard data about third-grade achievement at Harlem Park as a whole—data which made Rhee’s claims sound a bit improbable. An aggressive journalist could surely pursue this type of analysis harder.) Meanwhile, Rhee has long made detailed claims about her students’ success. As the Post reported, her official resume had long asserted this: "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.” At best, it’s extremely irresponsible to make such detailed claims on the basis of “informal chit-chat.”
(For what it’s worth, it seems unlikely that “central office people” would have been “the only ones” who had the detailed, student-by-student data. Beyond that, we find it hard to believe that Rhee wouldn’t have wanted to know how her individual students tested, even after she’d left the school system.)
Jay is inclined to believe such claims, based on judgments he has made about other Teach for America teachers. Our inclination is vastly different, for reasons we’ve long described. But Jay is not the only scribe who’s inclined to accept Rhee’s claims on their face. When Fred Hiatt penned the recent Post piece in which he fawned about Rhee’s vision (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/24/08), he too seemed to be accepting Rhee’s claims at face value:
HIATT (11/10/08): Rhee offers the ultimate in no-excuses leadership. She has taken on one of the worst public school systems in the nation and has pledged to turn it into one of the best within a decade. The usual excuses made for such schools—that they cannot possibly do better because their students are poor, or come from broken families, or haven't been read to, or are surrounded by crime—Rhee does not accept. She has seen such students learn, Rhee explains, in her own classroom in Baltimore in the early 1990s, and in many other schools since.
Pundits seem to find it easy to believe these pleasing assertions. Jay cited Teach for America teachers, but as best we can tell, Teach for America has not been able to demonstrate outstanding systematic success. (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/14/08.) In our view, people who actually care about outcomes will be much more hard-headed about such claims. You see, it actually matters if these tales are true, because Rhee’s whole vision is built on notions derived from these uplifting stories. In Rhee’s world, teachers can produce miracle cures—if they just get off their keisters start working harder. (If they’d only make students sit in a U, they too could see those “test scores soar.”) Her insurgency seems to be based on the idea that teachers are simply refusing to teach. If we threaten them, fire them, scare them and bribe them, they’ll finally get off their lumps off lard and all will be well with the world.
We’re sorry—we just don’t believe that. We think that vision is vastly skewed—and it seems to be Rhee’s master vision.
Can teachers produce those miracle cures? Pundits love to believe such things; they’ve promoted such notions for decades. On that point, we also asked Jay why he included that frankly silly passage about having the students all sit in a U while making those marks on the blackboard. “My fault for not making it clear that that was just a couple of the things she did,” he replied. “The obsessive lesson planning and the individual student goal keeping were likely much more important to the progress she made, also the frequent contact with parents and the looping—sticking with the same kids for two grades.” But there too, many teachers (including us) have stuck with the same kids for two grades. This practice does not produce miracle cures unless the teacher’s a miracle worker.
It’s always possible that Rhee’s students achieved the gains she has claimed, of course—but we think it’s extremely unlikely. And let’s be real: Even if some teacher can produce such cures, that doesn’t mean anyone else can. Everybody can’t be Babe Ruth. You can’t assume that all your outfielders could hit 60 home runs if they’d just try a bit harder.
We don’t know Jay, but we share the old school system tie. (In 1965, we graduated from Aragon High in San Mateo, California. Through absolutely no fault of his own, Jay had to go to Hillsdale.) He’s worked on public school issues for many years; we’re frankly biased in his favor. But for decades, journalists have found it easy to believe miracle claims about success in low-income schools. In the case of Rhee, a whole insurgency seems to be built on belief in such claims. For that reason, a more typical brand of journalistic skepticism would very much seem to be called for.
“To understand [Rhee] and the educational insurgency she is part of, you have to know what happened when she taught at Baltimore's Harlem Park Elementary School in the early 1990s,” Jay wrote. Strictly speaking, that isn’t true—and it seems that we can’t really know what happened.. But as Jay suggests, her vision is built on faith in the notion that remarkable cures are there for the taking. If we care about low-income schools, we won’t rush to believe such ideas.
Next—Part 4: From Nossiter back to Kristof.
Visit our incomparable archives: We discussed Rhee’s claims in some detail when she was named to the chancellor post. For one example, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/2/07. If you search our archives on the word “Rhee,” you’ll find many more examples.