Wednesday, December 18, 2013


                                                                                    by Andy Piascik
            The latest eruption of John Kennedy hysteria, bordering on deification, seems safely behind us now that the 50th anniversary of his assassination has passed. Though there is much disinformation about JFK’s legacy that could and should be discussed, two areas stand out: his relationship to the Black Liberation Movement and his actions in Southeast Asia.
            Despite all the evidence to the contrary, Kennedy has come to be seen as an ally of - even a hero of - the Black Liberation Movement. In fact, he opposed both the goals and actions of that movement from early in his term when terrorists were beating unarmed and vastly outnumbered Freedom Riders, to the final months of his life when four young girls were blown up in an Alabama church. When black moderates announced plans for an action in Washington in 1963, Kennedy worked overtime to derail it, with significant success, mainly by strong arming black moderates eager to remain in good with the White House. As a result, the planned direct action protest with civil disobedience morphed into a march and the moderates went so far as to force the day’s most radical speaker, John Lewis of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, to drop portions of his speech critical of the administration.
            As for Southeast Asia, many in the mainstream have argued that Kennedy was about to withdraw U.S. troops and leave the Indochinese to fight their own battles when he was assassinated. This fixation on what he might have done is understandable, for the historical record – what JFK actually did – is quite horrifying and laid the groundwork for the decade of slaughter that followed.
            First was the escalation of U.S. aggression in Laos, accompanied by diplomatic shenanigans that undermined coalition governments that included the Pathet Lao revolutionaries despite their being the most popular force in the country.  The goal, as always with empire, was all out victory and the annihilation of anyone who favored national liberation.
            In Vietnam, a similar approach led to massive devastation. In the winter of 1961-62, Kennedy initiated the full-scale bombing of those parts of South Vietnam controlled by the National Liberation Front (all but Saigon and its immediate surroundings). The justification that bombing was needed to defeat the revolution masked the indiscriminate nature of the aerial assault, which resulted in casualties that were overwhelmingly civilian. And so the tone was set for the next eleven years of war.
            It was also Kennedy who authorized the first use of Chemicals of Mass Destruction in Southeast Asia, with napalm the best-known and most deadly. Never had chemical warfare been used so extensively, though the U.S. had also used napalm in Korea in the early 1950’s. Again, the tone was established as massive amounts of phosphorous, Agent Orange and other chemicals were used for the rest of the war, chemicals the deadly affects of which are being felt to this day throughout Indochina.
            And it was under Kennedy that the notorious strategic hamlets were set up throughout South Vietnam. “Strategic Hamlets” is a term worthy of Orwell at his best or Madison Avenue at its worst, designed to induce thoughts of happy, grateful peasants gathered around a campfire. The more accurate phrase would be Concentration Camps, as Vietnamese by the thousands were rounded up at gunpoint and forced to live behind barbed wire. Anyone who resisted was beaten or worse; anyone attempting to escape was shot. The aim was to separate the people from the NLF though the result, not surprisingly, as with the bombing and the chemical weapons, was the opposite, as ever larger segments of the population became supporters of the revolution.
As each of these moves failed and the NLF grew stronger, Kennedy ordered ground troops to Southeast Asia in the spring of 1962, the number of which he gradually increased until his death. There is no evidence to indicate any plan for withdrawal short of victory, the myth-making of Oliver Stone, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. and so many others notwithstanding.
            One way to get a handle on the JFK withdrawal myth is to recall another assassination in November of 1963, that of South Vietnamese dictator Ngo Dinh Diem. For much of 1963, Diem threatened to undermine empire’s goals by pushing for a negotiated peace with the NLF and a U.S. withdrawal. In response, Kennedy did what his kind frequently do in such circumstances: he ordered a hit on Diem and replaced him with generals willing to follow orders.  
For all the wishful thinking about what Kennedy would have done in Indochina had he lived, the inescapable truth, as opposed to the fantasy, is that he escalated the war and initiated increasing levels of terror that eventually resulted in the deaths of millions. Significantly, there is no mention of withdrawal short of victory in the many Camelot memoirs, biographies and histories until after the tide had turned dramatically against U.S. aggression. Only then did the myth of “Kennedy the Peacemaker” emerge.      
            Perhaps the JFK cult can be explained by the odious legacies of his two immediate successors, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, both of whom massively escalated the carnage in Indochina and ultimately abdicated in disgrace. Odious their legacies may be but there’s no way around the fact that Kennedy’s legacy smells just as foul. Such an explanation also obscures the fact that it was Kennedy who established the terms for the domestic conflict that would rage throughout the 1960’s – outraged hostility on the part of the ruling class to the democracy movements that shook the empire to its foundations. It is those movements that will be remembered and celebrated long after the JFK cult hopefully, eventually, finally, finds its rightful resting place in the proverbial dustbin of history.
Andy Piascik is a long-time activist and award-winning author who writes for Z, Counterpunch  and many other publications and websites. He can be reached at

Monday, December 16, 2013

Kennedy, The Illusive President

Interesting piece on Kennedy with a lot of good links.

Kennedy, the Elusive President

Abramson and Tanenhaus on J.F.K.: Jill Abramson, The Times’s executive editor, and Sam Tanenhaus discuss the many books devoted to John F. Kennedy, how his presidency changed the news media and the effect the assassination had on her.
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As the 50th anniversary of his assassination nears, John F. Kennedy remains all but impossible to pin down. One reason is that his martyrdom — for a generation of Americans still the most traumatic public event of their lives, 9/11 notwithstanding — has obscured much about the man and his accomplishments.


Matt Dorfman
Associated Press
The Kennedys on vacation in Hyannis Port, Mass.
The presidential motorcade in Dallas, Nov. 22, 1963.
Was Kennedy a great president, as many continue to think? Or was he a reckless and charming lightweight or, worse still, the first of our celebrities-in-chief? To what extent do his numerous personal failings, barely reported during his lifetime but amply documented since, overshadow or undermine his policy achievements? And what of those achievements — in civil rights and poverty, to name two issues his administration embraced. Weren’t the breakthroughs actually the doing of his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson?
Even the basic facts of Kennedy’s death are still subject to heated argument. The historical consensus seems to have settled on Lee Harvey Oswald as the lone assassin, but conspiracy speculation abounds — involving Johnson, the C.I.A., the mob, Fidel Castro or a baroque combination of all of them. Many of the theories have been circulating for decades and have now found new life on the Internet, in Web sites febrile with unfiltered and at times unhinged musings.
Of course the Kennedy fixation is hardly limited to the digital world. An estimated 40,000 books about him have been published since his death, and this anniversary year has loosed another vast outpouring. Yet to explore the enormous literature is to be struck not by what’s there but by what’s missing. Readers can choose from many books but surprisingly few good ones, and not one really outstanding one.
It is a curious state of affairs, and some of the nation’s leading historians wonder about it. “There is such fascination in the country about the anniversary, but there is no great book about Kennedy,” Robert Caro lamented when I spoke to him not long ago. The situation is all the stranger, he added, since Kennedy’s life and death form “one of the great American stories.” Caro should know. His epic life of Johnson (four volumes and counting) brilliantly captures parts of the Kennedy saga, especially the assassination in Dallas, revisited in the latest installment, “The Passage of Power.”
Robert Dallek, the author of “An Unfinished Life,” probably the best single-volume Kennedy biography, suggests that the cultish atmosphere surrounding, and perhaps smothering, the actual man may be the reason for the deficit of good writing about him. “The mass audience has turned Kennedy into a celebrity, so historians are not really impressed by him,” Dallek told me. “Historians see him more as a celebrity who didn’t accomplish very much.” Dallek also pointed to a second inhibiting factor, the commercial pressure authors feel to come up with sensational new material. His own book, as it happens, included a good deal of fresh information on Kennedy’s severe health problems and their cover-up by those closest to him. And yet Dallek is careful not to let these revelations overwhelm the larger story.
Dallek is also good on the fairy-tale aspects of the Kennedy family history, and he closely examines the workings of the Kennedy White House. So enthralled was he by this last topic that he has written a follow-up, “Camelot’s Court,” which profiles members of Kennedy’s famous brain trust and is being released for the 50th anniversary. This time, however, it is Dallek who doesn’t offer much fresh material.
This in turn raises another question: How much is left to say about Kennedy’s presidency? The signature legislative accomplishments he and his advisers envisioned were not enacted until after his death. Then there is the Vietnam conundrum. Some maintain that Kennedy would not have escalated the war as Johnson did. But the belief that he would have limited the American presence in Vietnam is rooted as much in the romance of “what might have been” as in the documented record.
Indeed, a dolorous mood of “what might have been” hangs over a good deal of writing about Kennedy. Arriving in time for Nov. 22 is the loathsomely titled “If Kennedy Lived. The First and Second Terms of President John F. Kennedy: An Alternate History,” by the television commentator Jeff Greenfield, who imagines a completed first Kennedy term and then a second. This isn’t new territory for Greenfield, who worked for Kennedy’s brother Robert and is the author of a previous book of presidential “what ifs” called “Then Everything Changed.” (Dallek’s “Camelot’s Court” and Greenfield’s “If Kennedy Lived” are reviewed here.)
Thurston Clarke, the author of two previous and quite serviceable books on the Kennedys, also dwells on fanciful “what might have beens” in “JFK’s Last Hundred Days,” suggesting that the death of the presidential couple’s last child, Patrick, brought the grieving parents closer together and may have signaled the end of Kennedy’s compulsive womanizing. What’s more, Clarke makes a giant (and dubious) leap about Kennedy as leader, arguing that in the final 100 days he was becoming a great president. One example, according to Clarke, was his persuading the conservative Republicans Charles Halleck, the House minority leader, and Everett Dirksen, the Senate minority leader, to support a civil rights bill. Once re-elected, Kennedy would have pushed the bill through Congress.
Kennedy as Arthurian hero is also a feature of what has been called “pundit lit” by the historian and journalist David Greenberg. The purpose of this genre (books by writers who themselves are famous) is, in Greenberg’s words, “to extend their authors’ brands — to make money, to be sure, and to express some set of ideas, however vague, but mainly to keep their celebrity creators in the media spotlight.” The champion in this growing field is Bill O’Reilly, who has milked the Kennedy assassination with unique efficiency.
O’Reilly’s latest contribution, “Kennedy’s Last Days,” is an illustrated recycling, for children, of his mega-best seller “Killing Kennedy.” This new version, it must be said, distinctly improves on the original, whose choppy sentences, many written in the present tense, lose nothing when recast for younger readers. “He is on a collision course with evil,” O’Reilly declares. No less elevated is his discussion of Kennedy’s decision to visit Dallas despite warnings of roiling violence, including the physical assault on his United Nations ambassador, Adlai Stevenson, who had given a speech in the city in October 1963. “J.F.K. has decided to visit Big D,” O’Reilly writes. “There is no backing down.” Happily, the wooden prose is offset by the many illustrations. My favorite is a spread on the first family’s pets, including puppies and a pony.
Bad books by celebrity authors shouldn’t surprise us, even when the subject is an American president. The true mystery in Kennedy’s case is why, 50 years after his death, highly accomplished writers seem unable to fix him on the page.
For some, the trouble has been idolatry. Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who wrote three magisterial volumes on Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal, attempted a similar history in “A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House.” Published in 1965, it has the virtues of immediacy, since Schlesinger, Kennedy’s Harvard contemporary, had been on the White House staff, brought in as court historian. He witnessed many of the events he describes. But in his admiration for Kennedy, he became a chief architect of the Camelot myth and so failed, in the end, to give a persuasive account of the actual presidency.
In 1993, the political journalist Richard Reeves did better. “President Kennedy: Profile of Power” is a minutely detailed chronicle of the Kennedy White House. As a primer on Kennedy’s decision-making, like his handling of the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban missile crisis, the book is fascinating. What’s missing is a picture of Kennedy’s personal life, though Reeves includes a passing mention of Marilyn Monroe being sewn into the $5,000 flesh-colored, skintight dress she wore to celebrate the president’s birthday at Madison Square Garden in 1962. (This is the place to note that Reeves edited “The Kennedy Years,” The New York Times’s own addition to the ever-­expanding Kennedy cosmos, and I wrote the foreword.)
Balancing out, or warring with, the Kennedy claque are the Kennedy haters, like Seymour M. Hersh and Garry Wills. In “The Dark Side of Camelot,” Hersh wildly posits connections between the Kennedys and the mob, while Wills, though he offers any number of brilliant insights into Kennedy and his circle of courtiers, fixates on the Kennedy brothers’ (and father’s) sexual escapades in “The Kennedy Imprisonment.”
The sum total of this oddly polarized literature is a kind of void. Other presidents, good and bad, have been served well by biographers and historians. We have first-rate books on Jefferson, on Lincoln, on Wilson, on both Roosevelts. Even unloved presidents have received major books: Johnson (Caro) and Richard Nixon (Wills, among others). Kennedy, the odd man out, still seeks his true biographer.
Why is this the case? One reason is that even during his lifetime, Kennedy defeated or outwitted the most powerfully analytic and intuitive minds.
In 1960, Esquire magazine commissioned Norman Mailer’s first major piece of political journalism, asking him to report on the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles that nominated Kennedy. Mailer’s long virtuoso article, “Superman Comes to the Supermarket,” came as close as any book or essay ever has to capturing Kennedy’s essence, though that essence, Mailer candidly acknowledged, was enigmatic. Here was a 43-year-old man whose irony and grace were keyed to the national temper in 1960. Kennedy’s presence, youthful and light, was at once soothing and disruptive, with a touch of brusqueness. He carried himself “with a cool grace which seemed indifferent to applause, his manner somehow similar to the poise of a fine boxer, quick with his hands, neat in his timing, and two feet away from his corner when the bell ended the round.” Finally, however, “there was an elusive detachment to everything he did. One did not have the feeling of a man present in the room with all his weight and all his mind.”
Mailer himself doesn’t know “whether to value this elusiveness, or to beware of it. One could be witnessing the fortitude of a superior sensitivity or the detachment of a man who was not quite real to himself.”
And yet Kennedy’s unreality, in Mailer’s view, may have answered the particular craving of a particular historical moment. “It was a hero America needed, a hero central to his time, a man whose personality might suggest contradiction and mysteries which could reach into the alienated circuits of the underground, because only a hero can capture the secret imagination of a people, and so be good for the vitality of his nation.” Those words seemed to prophesy the Kennedy mystique that was to come, reinforced by the whisker-thin victory over Nixon in the general election, by the romantic excitements of Camelot and then by the horror of Dallas.
Fifty years later we are still sifting through the facts of the assassination. The Warren Commission concluded in 1964 that Kennedy had been killed by a lone gunman, Lee Harvey Oswald. Edward Jay Epstein and Mark Lane were among the first writers to challenge that finding, and their skepticism loosed a tide of investigations. The 50th anniversary has washed in some new ones. Among the more ambitious is “A Cruel and Shocking Act: The Secret History of the Kennedy Assassination,” a work of more than 500 pages. Its author, Philip Shenon, a former New York Times reporter, uncovered a new lead, in the person of a heretofore overlooked woman who may have had suspicious ties to the assassin. But when Shenon finds the woman, now in her 70s, in Mexico, she denies having had a relationship with Oswald, and Shenon’s encounters with her prove more mysterious than illuminating.
Kennedy’s murder was bound to attract novelists, and some have approached the subject inventively, if with strange results. Stephen King’s “11/22/63,” a best seller published in 2011, takes the form of a time-travel romp involving a high school English teacher who finds romance in Texas while keeping tabs on Oswald. At more than 800 pages, the novel demands a commitment that exceeds its entertainment value.
I rather like Mailer’s “Oswald’s Tale,” published in 1995. It is, like his earlier masterpiece “The Executioner’s Song,” a work of “faction,” which is Mailer’s term for his hybrid of documented fact and novelistic elaboration. Mailer and his colleague, Lawrence Schiller, spent six months in Russia examining Oswald’s K.G.B. files, and the huge quasi novel that came out of it contains a good deal of engrossing material about Oswald and his Russian wife, Marina, as well as the odd assortment of people the couple mixed with in Texas. Mailer’s narrative skills are prodigious, but in the end he has little to tell us that wasn’t already uncovered by Priscilla Johnson McMillan in “Marina and Lee,” her nonfiction portrait of the troubled couple from 1977. (Mailer properly credits McMillan’s book.)
Most critics seem to think the outstanding example of Kennedy assassination fiction is “Libra,” Don DeLillo’s postmodern novel, published in 1988. The narrative is indeed taut and bracing. But the challenge DeLillo set for himself, to provide readers with “a way of thinking about the assassination without being constrained by half-facts or overwhelmed by possibilities, by the tide of speculation that widens with the years,” exceeds even his lavish gifts.
It is telling that DeLillo reverts to the shadowy realm of “half-facts.” Their persistence raises the question of just how many secrets remain, not only about Kennedy’s death but also about his life. And if there are secrets, who is guarding them, and why?
One clue has been furnished by the historian Nigel Hamilton, whose book “JFK: Reckless Youth,” published in 1992, was the first in a planned multivolume biography that promised to be a valuable addition to the current literature. (He has since dropped the project.) While the book was gossipy, especially on the subject of the young Kennedy’s sexual adventures, Hamilton also provided a vivid and lively account of Kennedy’s successful 1946 campaign for Congress. But when Hamilton began work on the next volumes, he said he came under a sustained barrage by Kennedy loyalists. “The family leaned upon well-known historians such as Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Doris Goodwin to write protest letters to the press,” Hamilton wrote in 2011 in The Huffington Post. “I was warned that no Kennedy-era official or friend would be ‘allowed’ to speak to me for my proposed sequel.”
Kennedy may have enjoyed the company of writers, but the long history of secrecy and mythmaking has surely contributed to the paucity of good books. The Kennedys — especially Jackie and Bobby — were notoriously hard on authors whose books they didn’t like. And they enlisted Schlesinger, Theodore Sorensen and other intimates to act as a kind of history police, not only withholding primary materials but also bullying writers. A prominent historian recently told me he was once warned by Schlesinger, with whom he had been friendly, that because he had invited Hamilton to a meeting of the American Historical Association he might himself be banished from the organization. In recent years, the protective seal seems to have loosened. The Kennedy family, including Edward Kennedy and his sister Jean Kennedy Smith, gave unfettered access to their father’s papers to David Nasaw, the author of “The Patriarch,” a well-received biography of Joseph P. Kennedy that appeared last year.
Caroline Kennedy has been even more open to the claims of history. She herself was involved in the publication of two books and the release of accompanying tapes. One of them, “Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations on Life With John F. Kennedy,” contains the transcripts of the first lady’s interviews about her husband with Schlesinger, conducted in 1964 but kept secret until 2011. They are revealing and mesmerizing. The other, “Listening In,” offers White House conversations captured in a secretly installed taping system in the Oval Office. Since Kennedy controlled the device, these conversations are more guarded, but the book includes at least one memorable moment, when the president hilariously loses his temper over unflattering press about the $5,000 cost of Mrs. Kennedy’s hospital maternity suite — “Are they crazy up there? Now you know what that’s gonna do? Any congressman is going to get up and say, ‘Christ, if they can throw $5,000 away on this, let’s cut ’em another billion dollars.’ You just sank the Air Force budget!”
The most disturbing case of the family’s attempts to control history came early on, and it involved William Manchester, the historian chosen by the Kennedys a few weeks after the assassination to write the authorized account, “The Death of a President.” Manchester was selected because of a previous, and fawning, book he had written about Kennedy, “Portrait of a President.” (In a bizarre twist, this was one of the books Lee Harvey Oswald checked out of a New Orleans public library just months before the assassination.) Manchester was given sole access to almost all the president’s men as well as to his widow and virtually every principal figure. (Lyndon Johnson submitted answers in writing through his staff.) It seemed the ideal arrangement — until Manchester presented a manuscript to the Kennedys.
In a gripping piece from his 1976 collection of essays, “Controversy,” Manchester described what happened next. First there were the many insertions and deletions made by various Kennedy minions, who applied so much pressure that Manchester became a nervous wreck. An especially low point came when Robert Kennedy hunted Manchester down in a New York hotel room and banged on the door, demanding to be let in to argue for still more changes. Next, Jackie Kennedy, who had not bothered to read the manuscript, accepted the view of her factotums that many of its details, like the fact that she carried cigarettes in her purse, were too personal. Further angered by the $665,000 Manchester had received from Look magazine for serial rights, Mrs. Kennedy went to court to enjoin the author from publishing the book. Eventually, she settled out of court and finally read “The Death of a President” when it was published in 1967. She deemed it “fascinating.”
Nevertheless, the Kennedy family, which controlled publication rights to “The Death of a President,” allowed it to go out of print, and for a number of years copies could be found only online or at rummage sales. The good news, maybe the best, of the 50th anniversary is that Little, Brown has now reissued paperback and e-book editions.
It’s good news because, remarkably, and against all odds, Manchester (who died in 2004) wrote an extraordinary book. There are obvious defects. Predictably, he blares the trumpets of Camelot, and he has a weakness for melodrama. It’s hard to believe, even at the time of Kennedy’s murder, that to the world it was “as though the Axis powers had surrendered and Adolf Hitler and Franklin Roosevelt had died in the hours between noon and midafternoon in Washington of a single day in 1945.” But these excesses don’t really matter, thanks to Manchester’s vivid reporting, masterly narrative and authentically poetic touches.
It is in small, quiet scenes that Manchester’s chronicle accumulates its greatest force. When it is time for Dave Powers, the slain president’s aide and sidekick, to pick out the clothes Kennedy will wear to his grave, he selects from eight suits and four pairs of shoes brought out by Kennedy’s valet, George Thomas. Powers settles on a blue-gray suit, black shoes and “a blue tie with a slight pattern of light dots.” An embroidered “JFK” on the white silk shirt is hidden from view. The valet remembered that Kennedy’s “dislike of flamboyant monograms had extended to handkerchiefs,” Manchester writes. The president “had carefully folded them so that the initials would not show, and Thomas did it for him now, slipping the handkerchief into his coat pocket.”
Of all that has been written and that will be read on this 50th anniversary, it is the last paragraphs of “The Death of a President” that deserve to stand out from everything else. Manchester describes viewing the bloodstained pink suit Jackie Kennedy wore on Nov. 22, 1963, which had since been stowed in a Georgetown attic:
Unknown to her, the clothes Mrs. Kennedy wore into the bright midday glare of Dallas lie in an attic not far from 3017 N Street. In Bethesda that night those closest to her had vowed that from the moment she shed them she should never see them again. She hasn’t. Yet they are still there, in one of two long brown paper cartons thrust between roof rafters. The first is marked “September 12, 1953,” the date of her marriage; it contains her wedding gown. The block-printed label on the other is “Worn by Jackie, November 22, 1963.” Inside, neatly arranged, are the pink wool suit, the black shift, the low-heeled shoes and, wrapped in a white towel, the stockings. Were the box to be opened by an intruder from some land so remote that the name, the date and photographs of the ensemble had not been published and republished until they had been graven upon his memory, he might conclude that these were merely stylish garments which had passed out of fashion and which, because they were associated with some pleasant occasion, had not been discarded.
If the trespasser looked closer, however, he would be momentarily baffled. The memento of a happy time would be cleaned before storing. Obviously this costume has not been. There are ugly splotches along the front and hem of the skirt. The handbag’s leather and the inside of each shoe are caked dark red. And the stockings are quite odd. Once the same substance streaked them in mad scribbly patterns, but time and the sheerness of the fabric have altered it. The rusty clots have flaked off; they lie in tiny brittle grains on the nap of the towel. Examining them closely, the intruder would see his error. This clothing, he would perceive, had not been kept out of sentiment. He would realize that it had been worn by a slender young woman who had met with some dreadful accident. He might ponder whether she had survived. He might even wonder who had been to blame.
Unfortunately, the tapes of Manchester’s two five-hour interviews with Jackie Kennedy, who seems to have regretted her frankness, remain under seal at the Kennedy Library until 2067. This is a final sadness for a reader sifting through these many books. Taken together, they tell us all too little about this president, now gone 50 years, who remains as elusive in death as he was in life.

Jill Abramson is the executive editor of The Times.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

“Are Kids too Coddled?” Challenging Bruni’s Opinion with Scientific Data and Evidence

Posted by on Dec 13, 2013 in Editorial Features, News
“Are Kids too Coddled?” Challenging Bruni’s Opinion with Scientific Data and Evidence

“Are Kids too Coddled?”

Challenging Bruni’s Opinion with Scientific Data and Evidence

Denny Taylor, 2013
“Are kids too coddled?” Frank Bruni asks in The New York Times, November 24, 2013.
Bruni wants parents to stop whining and kids to toughen up. It’s a predictable piece of writing, the kind that second career students, who have opted-out of journalism or investment banking, often write in graduate classes when their careers have been interrupted by the technological or economic squeeze that has left them scrambling for an easy alternative.
In the piece Bruni denigrates parents, dismisses the concerns of teachers, and does not understand that the testimony of the social worker is factual testimony and not uninformed opinion as he professes. Bruni dismisses parents, teachers, and social workers, and he genders moral authority when he quotes David Coleman’s simplistic and fundamentally flawed proposition that rigorous standards “redefine self-esteem as something achieved through hard work”.
In the US there are many people who have worked hard all their lives and are looking for work. Similarly, there are many children in public schools who work hard and are failing for reasons over which they have no control. In many public schools kids have had the self esteem knocked out of them by the developmentally inappropriate curriculum known as the Common Core.
If Bruni handed me his opinion piece of writing in a graduate literacy course that I was teaching, I would hand it back to him and give him the opportunity to rewrite it. If he chose not to rewrite, he would receive an inflated C for the piece and his final grade would be impacted by the choice he had made. He would need A’s in all his other assignments to squeak by with a B.
At the meeting that would follow the return of his paper we would discuss the meaning of “opinion” – whether it be in journalism or in a graduate course in education. I would probably say something about the Supreme Court – that while US Supreme Court Justices render opinions, they are opinions informed by deep knowledge of Constitutional Law, by a lifetime of experience in the legal profession, and by rigorous legal research as it pertains to the cases that require the Supreme Court Justices to express their collective opinion.
Given that Bruni criticizes “coddling”, I would not “coddle” him. I would tell him that his off-­the-cuff piece was opportunistic, filled with writing contrivances, written at the expense of others, and lacking in any substantive understanding of the topic on which he had chosen to write. I would tell Bruni to do his homework, which he clearly has not, and to rewrite and resubmit the essay.
I would explain that I expect him to work to the best of his ability, and that I expect rigorous scholarship, even though in more than four decades in education I have never administered a test, standardized or otherwise. I would tell him that my job as a teacher is to ensure he has every opportunity to think deeply about his scholarship, and to produce a piece of writing that is imaginative and creative, as well as firmly grounded in disciplined and systematic research.
“Don’t tell me to think,” a graduate student once told me. “Just tell me what you want me to do!”
“What I want you to do,” I replied, “is think.”
I would ask Bruni to think. I would ask him to consider whether tacked together anecdotes actually constitute an opinion piece, and then take the anecdotes one by one and help him to really think about them.
I would begin with his statement about the “welling hysteria from right wing alarmists, who hallucinate a federal takeover of education and the indoctrination of a next generation of government-loving liberals”.
I would advise him to read “Whose Knowledge Counts in Government Literacy Policies: How the Federal Government Used Science to Take Over Public Schools” by the renowned reading scholar Robert Calfee.
“In January 2002, President George W. Bush signed the No Child Let Behind Act (NCLB; PL 107-110) instituting a major federal encroachment on public education in the United States,” Calfee writes. “The focus is on literacy, but the implications are far reaching, and go to the core of the intersections of science and politics, of knowledge and power, and of the balance between federal and local control, as these affect the education of young children.”
I would urge Bruni to drop the gratuitous rhetoric of “welling hysteria”, and do his homework. An opinion piece on the loss of local control of public education has very serious implications that he has either missed or ignored.
Similarly, Bruni’s “from left-wing paranoiacs, who imagine some conspiracy to ultimately privatize education and create a new frontier of profits for money-mad plutocrats” could be a critical site for inquiry. He could start with Pearson.
“Global education is a once-in-a-generation opportunity,” Pearson’s CEO, John Fallon, stressed in explaining the company’s strategy for the educational market in Pearson’s 2012 annual report. “We think education will turn out to be the great growth industry of the 21st Century.” He states, “As the world’s leading learning company, Pearson has a once-in-a generation opportunity. To seize it, we must transform the company again. Our strategy is sound; we are now accelerating.”
In the 2012 annual report, Pearson states that  “North American education is Pearson’s largest business, with 2012 sales of ₤2,7 bn and operating profit of ₤536 m” ($4.34 billion and $862 million respectively, as of 11-7-13)”. The annual report also notes that, “In the US we actively monitor changes through participation in advisory boards and representation on standard setting committees. Our customer relationships teams have detailed knowledge of each state market.”
Moreover, Pearson states that the company works “through our own government relations team,” and that the company is also “monitoring municipal funding and the impact on our education receivables.”
I would advise Bruni to be cautious in creating dualisms, and advise him to adopt a position that relies on scientific research and not on political ideology. Many scholars take a third position that is transdisciplinary, combining insights from research in the physical, social, and biological sciences, with systematic documentation of human experience.
I would encourage Bruni to unpackage his unquestioning acceptance of the claim that the Common Core is a “laudable set of guidelines”.
On a daily basis I receive emails from researchers and educators on specific aspects of the Common Core that are problematic. It is an ill thought out, poorly constructed, inadequately researched national experiment, in which public school children are the mandated experimental subjects. It is an experiment that is being conducted without parental permission and without institutional human subject review.
Given the tenor of Bruni’s “opinion” piece it is unlikely that the last statement would sit well with him. I would encourage him to take up the challenge, resist the pressures of policy makers, ditch the pundits and talking heads, and conduct a thorough, data driven analysis.
He could start by visiting the website of the Center for the Developing Child at Harvard University where he would find a link, among many others, to a recently published scientific paper by the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. The paper focuses on the importance of young children developing, as the Scientific Council states, “in an environment of relationships”.
Bruni would find that this eminent group of child psychiatrists, pediatricians, neuroscientists, and professors of child development, working in the interface between science and public policy, draw attention to the connections between young children’s social experiences and the developing architecture of the brain: “healthy development depends on the quality and reliability of a young child’s relationships with the important people in his or her life, both within and outside the family. Even the development of a child’s brain architecture depends on the establishment of these relationships”.
The idea that children’s social environments can impact their brain architecture is a significant scientific finding of which Bruni does not seem to be aware. Given the high stress educational environments that are a direct result of the Common Core experiment, the implications of this scientific fact are potentially devastating for young children, their families, and US society
At my meeting with Bruni I would encourage him to reflect on these scientific findings, and on his disparaging remarks about the father who spoke at the Poughkeepsie meeting with New York State Education Commissioner John King. Putting the father on the spot was not only unwarranted but also wrongheaded. The dad gets it. Bruni doesn’t. It is a scientific fact that the higher the stress levels caused by developmentally inappropriate classroom instruction, the less children achieve in school.
I would also suggest to Bruni that if a social worker testifies that elementary school children say they feel stupid and that school is too hard, that they are throwing temper tantrums and begging to stay home, that they are so upset they are vomiting, or if they say they are having suicidal thoughts and they are self mutilating (cutting), no New York Times reporter or public official should so glibly dismiss such testimony.
If Bruni were in my graduate class I would tell him in no uncertain terms that I regard his opinion with regard to the testimony of the social worker to be grossly irresponsible. He states, “If children are unraveling to this extent, it’s a grave problem”, but cautions that “we need to ask ourselves how much panic is trickling down to kids from their parents and whether we’re paying the price of having insulated kids from blows to their egos”.
I would tell Bruni the implication of his “opinion” is that the social worker is lying. She is not. I would advise him to take her testimony seriously, and to give up the idea that kids in the US are “insulated” from “blows to their ego”. I would point out to him that the scientific evidence, both in the US and from international comparative studies, leaves no doubt that children in the US are negative outliers on every measure of health and well being of children in the developed world.
I would give Bruni a copy of The Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, and encourage him to visit the website of Equality Trust. I would put in his hands the Eleventh Innocenti Report CardChild well-being in rich countries: A comparative overview, produced by the UNICEF Office of Research, and point out to him that the bottom four places in the league tables on child well-being are occupied by three of the poorest countries in the survey, Latvia, Lithuania, and Romania, and by one of the richest, the United States of America.
Auguries of Innocence, by William Blake
(Photo Credit: Ben James Taylor)
Auguries of Innocence, by William Blake
Simply put, the high stress environments in which children in the US are raised are unhealthy, detrimental to their well being, and have a negative impact on their academic development. This is not opinion. It is fact. Wilkinson and Pickett provide the epidemiological analysis based on medical research as well as social science that they link to poor academic achievement. These rankings correspond with the international rankings of children’s health and well-being reported in the Eleventh Innocenti Report Card, and in other similar international comparative studies.
None of these negative findings should surprise Bruni. If you write opinions in the New York Times, many readers will ascribe to you both the authority and integrity of the press. Given that this is the case, readers, especially parents and teachers, should know that government officials have openly admitted that to bring about unpopular educational reform  “astute use of media and communications have a proven ability to effect changes in mindsets and actions”.
The quote is taken from an infamous report entitled “US Education Reform and National Security”. Condoleezza Rice, the Secretary of State for the George W. Bush Administration, and Joel Klein, CEO and Executive VP of News Corporation, who was once Chancellor of New York City’s school system, co-chaired the committee that produced the report. The report was written in support of the Common Core.
Rice and Klein write, “This public awareness campaign should be managed by a coalition of government, business, and military leaders. It should aim to keep everyone in the country focused on the national goal of improving education to safeguard America’s security today and in the future”. They state “The group believes that a targeted, annual campaign, led by the Department of Education in collaboration with the U.S. States, the Department of Defense and State, and the intelligence agencies could have this impact.”
Parents, teachers, and the public are not “coddling” kids, they are trying to protect them. There is much in the report that is rational and reasonable, but in a democratic society the overall tenor of the report is chilling.
I would encourage Bruni to disaggregate the TIMSS-R data as David Berliner did as far back as 2001. Berliner said then, as he has since with the data from 2009, that the “critics were misreading those scores”.
“TIMSS-R confirms a point many of us have long believed,” Berliner wrote in 2001. “Not all our schools district should change. Despite the doomsayers, some of our schools are doing fine. The U. S. average masks the scores of students from terrific public schools and hides the scores of students attending shamefully inadequate schools.”
“The moral is clear,” Berliner is decisive. “Average scores mislead completely in a country as heterogeneous as ours. We have many excellent public schools, and many that are not nearly as good. Those who want to undermine our public schools often condemn the whole system rather than face the inequities within it. They should focus their attention instead on rescuing the underfunded and ill-equipped schools that are failing children in our poorest neighborhoods.”
The bottom line is that there is a bifurcation of the US data in the international league tables, and the indisputable problem is the high rate of poverty and gross inequality that needs to be fixed.
To ensure that Bruni has the most recent data I would point him in the direction of the results from the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which were released on December 3, 2013. These latest PISA test results add to previous extensive evidence that extreme inequality in the US is the most damaging factor impacting the educational achievement of US students.
“Get the data,” I would tell Bruni. “And do your own research.”
To get him started I’d suggest he take a look at Commissioner Jack Buckley’s Briefing Slides, which were attached to the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) December 3, 2013 “NCES Statement on PISA 2012”, that presents the PISA data without any political spin. I would also make sure that he knows that OECD is the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and that ESCS stands for Economic, Social and Cultural Status.
“The ESCS is a critical factor in any analysis of US students,” I would explain, “because of the extreme inequality that we tolerate in America.”
With a little digging Bruni would find that US fifteen year old students in the high poverty group, who were in bottom quarter on the OECD scale of ESCS, had low scores in math, science and reading. Thus we can state that US students who are the recipients of America’s extreme inequality in the US scored significantly below the US and OECD average scores. Furthermore, these US students, who are deprived of the fundamental right to a public education comparable with US students in well funded school districts, had scores comparable to students in high poverty countries such as Kazakhstan, Romania and Cyprus.
In contrast, US fifteen year old students in the top quarter on the OECD ESCS scale had average scores that would rank around second in reading, fourth in math, and ninth in science when compared to the worldwide country averages. The “score gaps” between the top and bottom quarter ESCS groups of US fifteen year olds were found to be significant in all three areas – math, science and reading.
It is also important to note that three US states, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Florida opted to have the PISA tests administered to additional students so that they could receive their own ratings. The analysis of the disaggregated data revealed that Massachusetts and Connecticut students achieved outstanding results on a worldwide basis in reading and science and solid scores in math. However, Florida students scored significantly lower in math and science than the US average and only average in reading. This is critical data for Bruni to consider, given that Florida, which has higher rates of poverty, has also been a leader of the educational reform movement that has lead to the establishment of the Common Core.
Could it be that the Common Core is now a critical factor in what Education Secretary Arne Duncan has stated is “a picture of education stagnation”?
Whatever the argument that is presented by policy makers and pundits, US policy makers can no longer state that the current educational reforms are “evidence based”. To the contrary, there is overwhelming scientific evidence that they are not.
Helen Ladd states that current educational reforms “have the potential to do serious harm” in her presidential address, Education and Poverty: Confronting the Evidence, to the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management (APPAM), November, 2011. Ladd writes, “Because these policy initiatives do not directly address the educational challenges experienced by disadvantaged students, they have contributed little –  and are not likely to contribute much in the future – to raising overall students achievement or to reducing achievement and educational attainment gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged students”.
At my meeting with Bruni I would urge him to reconsider his opinion based on the evidence. I would encourage him to read the Rice-Klein report and to take seriously the three M’s – the politically sanctioned monetization, marketization and militarization of public education.
I would suggest that he juxtapose this documentation with the research presented by Wilkinson and Pickett, and ask himself why it is that children in the US are a negative statistical outlier on every international comparative analysis of health, well-being, and academic development. If he needs more evidence of the depth of the problem, I would add one more data set for him to study, the Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) research.
I would put it to him that the situation is very grave indeed, that we are in the middle of a national emergency, and that the people who are speaking up have been so disenfranchised that no public official or newspaper reporter is listening to them.
I would tell him I stand with the father of the eight year old who spoke up. His son isn’t “bubble wrapped”, he is “fill-in-the-bubble trapped”. I stand with all the teachers and parents in Poughkeepsie who were brave enough to stand up to John King, even though they knew he would denigrate them, as he did.
I stand against the real negative outliers, who are the architects of the Common Core, the policy makers who have mandated it, and the multinational corporations who profit from it.
I stand for a new government mandate that no child shall come to school hungry, that every child shall have a bed to sleep on at night and a place to call “home”, that no child shall be left behind riding the subways or buses at night or sleeping in hospital emergency waiting rooms, as they do in New York City, and that no child shall be called “human capital” in any official report on educational reform and national security, as they are in the Rice-Klein report.
If America’s children are not safe then how can the nation be safe?
I stand with the social worker who testified that elementary school children are distressed to the point of having suicidal thoughts and who reported that children are self mutilating. I stand with the principals, teachers, and parents who are vocal in this struggle, with the Save Our Schools Movement, and with the OPT Out Movement. I stand with the teachers in Garfield High School in Seattle who refused to test the children in their school. .
I stand for a cessation of the developmentally inappropriate testing of young children, and for no tests to be administered before fourth grade. I stand for school districts to be allowed to reallocate the vast amounts of money they are presently forced to spend on testing so the money can be a funding source for developmentally appropriate curricular practices to ensure the health and well being of children as well as their academic development.
I stand for a nationwide emergency relief effort for children in high poverty schools, including a first response mobilization of the public to fill the classrooms of children who are poor with children’s books and all other essential school supplies.
Our schools should be filled with children who are not hungry, who are not among the most anxious children in the world, who participate in learning activities enhanced by technology, who conduct science experiments, participate in math projects, play musical instruments in bands and orchestras, sing in choirs, collaborate in art projects, actively engage in reading fiction and nonfiction paper and virtual books, and write on paper and tablets.
This is what it will take to nurture children’s imagination and creativity and enhance their scholarship, nothing less.
School can be and often is hard work, but it does not have to be “mirthless”, as Bruni would have us believe. Learning is quite literally and metaphorically about minds and hearts, and it can actually be joyful.
Let’s hope Bruni stands up for the nation’s children, and that the New York Times rethinks the editorial stance the newspaper has taken on public education, and does some investigative reporting first, to uncover why the scientific evidence is being obfuscated, and second, why the national emergency that is currently taking place in America’s public schools is not being reported.
The street art on the Garn Press Website accompanying this response to Frank Bruni is a line from Auguries of Innocence, by William Blake:
Every night and every morn
Some to misery are born,
Every morn and every night
Some are born to sweet delight.
Some are born to sweet delight,
Some are born to endless night.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Daily Howler on Ravitch and PISA Part 5

Posted: 13 Dec 2013 08:39 AM PST

Part 5—The return of the Age of Aquarius: Liberal response to the new PISA scores has often been quite hard to fathom.

Most amazing is the acceptance of the new cult of the PISA. This involves the apparent acceptance of PISA scores as the sole measure of student achievement.

In response to weak aggregate scores on the PISA, major liberals have failed to mention the large score gains which have been recorded on the NAEP, our widely-praised domestic testing program.

We’ve failed to mention American scores on the TIMSS and the PIRLS, the major international tests on which American students score better than on the PISA.

It’s astounding to see major liberals behave that way—to see our team advance the idea that American schools have recorded no progress in the past dozen years. But this is hardly the limit of our tribe’s incoherence and cluelessness—or of the apparent dishonesty of one of our loftiest leaders.

For our money, many of Diane Ravitch’s reactions to the PISA have been rather foolish. For one more example, consider this post, in which she links to a post by D.F. Brandenburg and showers him with praise.

Brandenburg is a former math teacher in the D.C. schools. At his eponymous blog, he has done a lot of good work about various public school issues.

We thought his reactions to the new PISA scores were a bit overwrought and unwise, to the extent that we could understand what he was proposing.

Ravitch linked to Branderburg’s seven-point post about the PISA, praising him for his “words of wisdom.” In the passage shown below, Ravitch quotes the part of his post she admired most.

To Ravitch, what follows is brilliant, unassailable. We found ourselves flashing back to the 60s:
RAVITCH (12/5/13): And here is his most brilliant, unforgettable, unassailable point:

“Arne Duncan and his ilk say that the fact that the same approach has failed for 10 straight years, means we need to keep doing it harder. Sensible people would say no, let’s forget about measuring with stupid standardized tests. Let the kids learn, remember that humans LOVE to learn stuff—it’s what we do as a species. And precisely nobody knows what knowledge of today is going to be the most useful or fun tomorrow. So let’s get rid of the idiotic focus on standardized tests and Big Data, and stop wasting so much money and time and energy on them. We’ve got all sorts of art and sports and drama and dance and music and technology and building stuff and real science and history and psychology to learn and to perform.”
That was the end of Ravitch’s post. We had the analysts check our papaya juice to see if someone had slipped us some acid, even on a weekday.

It’s certainly true that standardized tests have been misused and abused in a wide array of ways. For our money, it would be unwise to “forget about measuring with stupid standardized tests” as a result.

In the past, in the absence of such external checks, the majority culture tended to ignore the lagging performance of our so-called minority kids. Parents of minority children were persistently lied to about the progress of their own individual children. On a wider scale, the public was lied to too.

Results from an annual standardized test make that much harder to do.

We think it would be very unwise to eliminate standardized tests—but in our view, the second part of that highlighted statement is even stranger.

Back at the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, we heard these same ideas. “Let the kids learn. Remember that humans LOVE to learn stuff—it’s what we do as a species.”

Let’s get the teachers out of the way and let the children learn!

In fairness, there’s a very strong germ of truth lurking inside that bell-bottomed sentiment. Good schools will often help children discover the joy of the search—the pleasure of reading; the fun of learning and analyzing; the importance of outreach and service.

That said, children won’t necessarily take these route on their own. That is especially true of children who may be years behind traditional norms in basic reading and math skills.

We’re sorry, but it isn’t the case that those beautiful kids will magically learn how to read on their own. For our money, Branderburg’s statement is off in the clouds, perhaps in the sky with diamonds.

That said, Ravitch’s new book, Reign of Error, is full of similar sentiments. In this passage from her post about the new PISA scores, she links similar airy-fairy ideas to a dose of American exceptionalism:
RAVITCH (12/3/13): The more we focus on tests, the more we kill creativity, ingenuity, and the ability to think differently. Students who think differently get lower scores. The more we focus on tests, the more we reward conformity and compliance, getting the right answer.

Thirty years ago, a federal report called “A Nation at Risk” warned that we were in desperate trouble because of the poor academic performance of our students. The report was written by a distinguished commission, appointed by the Secretary of Education. The commission pointed to those dreadful international test scores and complained that “on 19 academic tests American students were never first or second and, in comparison with other industrialized nations, were last seven times.” With such terrible outcomes, the commission said, “the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people.” Yet we are still here, apparently the world’s most dominant economy. Go figure.

Despite having been proved wrong for the past half century, the Bad News Industry is in full cry, armed with the PISA scores, expressing alarm, fright, fear, and warnings of imminent economic decline and collapse.

Never do they explain how it was possible for the U.S. to score so poorly on international tests again and again over the past half century and yet still emerge as the world’s leading economy, with the world’s most vibrant culture, and a highly productive workforce.
“Students who think differently get lower scores?” So do kids who can’t read.

As every flower child once knew, only conformists score well on tests! On balance, that statement is silly. And in that full passage, Ravitch comes dangerously close to accepting the mediocre American scores of the past—scores which were largely built on the very weak performance of deserving minority kids who were floundering badly in school and were badly in need of help.

Was that old regime really OK? Again and again in her current writings, Ravitch comes dangerously close to suggesting that only the squares would worry about the meaning of the low average scores this nation produced in the past.

We know where those low scores came from. We don’t think it was cool or OK.

According to Ravitch, “we are still here, apparently the world’s most dominant economy.” It’s amazing to see the liberal world mixing this strand of exceptionalism with the flower-child foolishness of the past. But Ravitch persistently pushes these themes as she thrashes about, trying to denounce the “reforms” on whose behalf she was pushing the overstatements just a few years ago.

In our view, Ravitch is strongly drawn to overstatement, whichever side she happens to be on at whatever time. Consider this post from December 5, in which she continues to promote a comparison which she knows to be bogus.

Ravitch’s post, which seems rather slick, starts with these words:

“Daniel Wydo, a teacher in North Carolina, sent this analysis of 2012 PISA.”

She then presents a 935-word essay in which Wydo makes a series of misleading comparisons between American PISA scores and those from higher-scoring nations.

In her current book, Ravitch notes that comparisons of this type are “technically” bogus. In her December 5 post, she made those comparisons anyway, speaking through Wydo’s words.

Midway through her post, Ravitch is still quoting Wydo. She lets him make a stirring claim she surely knows to be bogus:
RAVITCH (12/5/13): “This is not a new phenomenon. For every administration of PISA and TIMSS, when controlling for poverty, U.S. public school students are not only competitive, they downright lead the world.”
Even in context, that statement by Wydo is so imprecise that it’s virtually meaningless. That said, it conveys an upbeat but thoroughly bogus impression.

No, Virginia and Oklahoma! Even after “controlling for poverty,” American students do not “downright lead the world” on international tests in any meaningful sense.

In that post, Ravitch uses Wydo’s words as a way to promote a set of bogus comparisons and claims. In his essay, Wydo makes a type of comparison which is now quite popular among liberals who have been misinformed by figures like Ravitch in the recent past.

It’s popular, but it’s thoroughly bogus. Here’s what Wydo has done:

First, he takes the average PISA scores produced by American schools in which fewer than ten percent of students qualify for free or reduced price lunch. Then, he compares the average scores produced by those schools to the average scores produced by entire foreign countries.

Here’s what’s wrong with that:

For starters, “free or reduced price lunch” is not a measure of poverty. Wydo doesn’t seem to know that.

At present, roughly half of American students qualify for free or reduced price lunch. As a result, very few American schools fit the category Wydo describes—and these schools tend to be found in our most affluent neighborhoods.

In his comparison, Wydo isn’t presenting the average scores for the full range of American students “after controlling for poverty.” Instead, he is presenting the average scores for a small slice of the student population, a slice of students who attend schools in our most upscale neighborhoods.

What percentage of our student population attends these schools? What is their average socioeconomic rank? There’s no way to know such things! For that reason, it makes no sense to compare their average scores to the average scores of entire nations.

(Nor does that slice of our population always “lead the world.” On the 2012 PISA, those American students were outscored in math by the entire student populations of Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Korea. Their average score was still quite good. But almost surely, they are a small, highly upscale slice of the population.)

In the last few years, these bogus comparisons have become quite popular among liberals. But they’re useless, bogus, grossly misleading—and to some extent, Ravitch knows this. In her new book, she continues to present these comparisons. But she includes this disclaimer (page 65):

“Technically, the comparison is not valid, because it involves comparing students in low-poverty schools with the average score for entire nations.”

That disclaimer grossly understates the problem with this type of comparison. But so what? Responding to the new PISA scores, Ravitch dispensed with disclaimers altogether. She simply posted what Wydo had sent.

It was Wydo who said it, not her!

It ought to be an embarrassment to see Ravitch argue this way. It ought to be, but it isn’t. Our “liberal” world more closely resembles the world of Fox with each passing day.

Can we talk? In the laziness of this unchallenged work; in our refusal to do any better; in our insouciance about these topics; in all these ways, we proudly display our liberal contempt for the interests of black kids. We also display the broken state of the American discourse.

Why should children know how to read and cipher? Our intellectual leaders can’t!

Tomorrow—Epilogue: The cult of the PISA! What Zakaria said

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Daily Howler on Ravitch

Posted: 11 Dec 2013 09:56 AM PST

Part 3—A deeply flawed trumpeter: Routinely, reading Diane Ravitch is an extremely large challenge.

Yesterday afternoon, then again this morning, we disappeared to favorite nooks to reread parts of her new book, Reign of Error.

Along with Amanda Ripley’s much more ballyhooed groaner, Reign of Error is one of our two current “big education books.” But as a writer, Ravitch tends to be extremely jumbled. For a world-class example, see below.

That said, Ravitch also tends to be excessively partisan, whichever side of whatever fight she happens to be on:

At the start of the last decade, Ravitch was a leading voice in support of standard “education reform”—in support of standards, testing and accountability. Today, she is the leading liberal voice against the side she was recently on.

We certainly don’t doubt Ravitch’s good intentions. Much of what she writes in her new book is at least theoretically useful.

But good intentions can produce bad results, especially when those good intentions are very strongly felt. This brings us back to Ravitch’s reactions to the new PISA scores.

Yesterday, in Part 2 of this series, we saw Ravitch weirdly denying that American scores were “flat” on the 2012 PISA tests. When she gets her dander up, Ravitch tends to say such things.

Today, let’s consider the four basic lessons she says she drew from the new PISA scores. She stated these lessons at the end of a 1400-word post—a post in which she almost seems to accept the reign of the new cult of the PISA.

What lessons did Ravitch draw from the new PISA scores? We’ll quote in full from the end of her post (all emphases are ours):
RAVITCH (12/3/13): From my vantage point as a historian, here is my takeaway from the PISA scores:

Lesson 1: If they mean anything at all, the PISA scores show the failure of the past dozen years of public policy in the United States. The billions invested in testing, test prep, and accountability have not raised test scores or our nation’s relative standing on the league tables. No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top are manifest failures at accomplishing their singular goal of higher test scores.

Lesson 2: The PISA scores burst the bubble of the alleged “Florida miracle” touted by Jeb Bush. Florida was one of three states–Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Florida–that participated in the PISA testing. Massachusetts did very well, typically scoring above the OECD average and the US average, as you might expect of the nation’s highest performing state on NAEP. Connecticut also did well. But Florida did not do well at all. It turns out that the highly touted “Florida model” of testing, accountability, and choice was not competitive, if you are inclined to take the scores seriously. In math, Florida performed below the OECD average and below the U.S. average. In science, Florida performed below the OECD average and at the U.S. average. In reading, Massachusetts and Connecticut performed above both the OECD and U.S. average, but Florida performed at average for both.

Lesson 3: Improving the quality of life for the nearly one-quarter of students who live in poverty would improve their academic performance.

Lesson 4: We measure only what can be measured. We measure whether students can pick the right answer to a test question. But what we cannot measure matters more. The scores tell us nothing about students’ imagination, their drive, their ability to ask good questions, their insight, their inventiveness, their creativity. If we continue the policies of the Bush and Obama administrations in education, we will not only NOT get higher scores (the Asian nations are so much better at this than we are), but we will crush the very qualities that have given our nation its edge as a cultivator of new talent and new ideas for many years.

Let others have the higher test scores. I prefer to bet on the creative, can-do spirit of the American people, on its character, persistence, ambition, hard work, and big dreams, none of which are ever measured or can be measured by standardized tests like PISA.
For all her virtues, Ravitch is a very aggressive partisan. Consider the second lesson she draws—the one in which she declare victory over Jeb Bush and “the Florida miracle.”

It’s true! Of the three states which participated in the PISA as independent entities, Florida produced the worst aggregate scores. Below, you see some of the relevant scores from the PISA math exam.

We’ll throw in a few other jurisdictions to widen the range of comparisons:
Average scores, 2012 PISA, math
Taiwan: 560
Korea: 554
Finland: 519
Massachusetts: 514
Connecticut: 506
United Kingdom: 494
OECD average: 494
United States: 481

Florida: 467
For all scores, click here, then scroll to page 12.

Florida scored quite poorly in math, below even the U.S. average. It scored well below Massachusetts and Connecticut.

Did Massachusetts “do very well?” That’s pretty much as you like it. Ravitch likes it the way she states it, with glorious Massachusetts leaving Jeb Bush for dead.

It’s also true that Massachusetts trailed Taiwan and Korea by perhaps a bit more than one school year. (Just for the record: Massachusetts has engaged in standards and testing too.)

That said, Ravitch understands, but chose to ignore, one basic set of reasons for the aggregate scores produced by those three states:

Florida’s student population is much poorer than that in Massachusetts. Beyond that, Massachusetts has a much higher percentage of white and Asian-American kids. Those groups remain our nation’s highest scorers, although the gaps have been getting smaller.

Demographically, how do Florida and Massachusetts compare? On the 2011 NAEP, 55 percent of Florida’s eighth-graders qualified for free or reduced price lunch. In Massachusetts, the figure was 33 percent. (This is a measure of lower income. It is not a measure of poverty.)

In Massachusetts, 77 percent of eighth-graders were white or Asian-American. In Florida, the corresponding figure was 48 percent.

(In Connecticut, the numbers resembled Massachusetts: 33 percent qualified for free or reduced price lunch, 70 percent were white or Asian-American. For all these demographic data, click here, scroll to page 85.

One year later, samples of those eighth-grade student populations were taking the 2012 PISA. As everyone knows, those differences in demographics help explain the differences in those states’ PISA scores.

Ravitch knows that it doesn’t make sense to compare those aggregate scores and say nothing else. She may even know this:

On the 2013 NAEP, Florida’s black students outscored their counterparts in Connecticut in Grade 8 math. So did Florida’s Hispanic students.

Readers can’t begin to imagine such facts from those aggregate PISA scores, or from reading what Ravitch wrote. But Ravitch tends to be a somewhat unbalanced partisan, whichever side she is currently on.

Not long ago, Ravitch was overstating on behalf of “reform.” Now, she tends to overstate in the other direction.

For our money, the passage called “Lesson 2” is vintage Ravitch. Beyond that, it isn’t especially helpful, except from a partisan standpoint.

But in some ways, Ravitch’s “Lesson 1” is even more striking.

Gack! In Lesson 1, Ravitch almost seems to buy into the primacy of the new cult of the PISA. Here’s why we say that:

At the start of her lengthy post, Ravitch seems to deny that American scores on the PISA were stagnant or flat. But by the time she hits Lesson 1, she seems to be saying something quite different.

In Lesson 1, Ravitch seems to say that our lousy PISA scores “show the failure of the past dozen years of public policy in the United States.” According to Ravitch, our investment in testing, test prep, and accountability “have not raised test scores or our nation’s relative standing on the league tables.”

According to Ravitch’s new position, our test scores have stayed the same for the past dozen years! But that gloomy pronouncement is only true if we do what cult leaders want—if we only consider aggregate scores, and we only consider the PISA.

Elsewhere, American test scores have been rising. This has been happening on tests which may be more reliable than the slightly unconventional and strongly crusading PISA.

In that deeply unfortunate passage, Ravitch seems to say that American test scores have been frozen in place for the past dozen years. Her desire to damn the side she hates seems to make her adopt the frameworks of a new, unfortunate cult.

In the past week, Ravitch’s reactions have been widely recited in liberal circles. What can it mean when we in the liberal world accept such a deeply flawed trumpeter as our leading voice?

Tomorrow: Disappearing the NAEP (and the TIMSS)

A paragraph for the ages: Tomorrow, we may consider the following paragraph from Ravitch’s book. We can’t be certain, but it may be the most confusing paragraph ever composed:
RAVITCH (page 47): The film Waiting for Superman misinterpreted the NAEP achievement levels. David Guggenheim, the film’s director and narrator, used the NAEP achievement levels to argue that American students were woefully undereducated. The film claimed that 70 percent of eighth-grade students could not read at grade level. That would be dreadful if it were true, but it is not. NAEP does not report grade levels (grade level describes a midpoint on the grading scale where half are above and half are below). Guggenheim assumed that students who were not “proficient” on the NAEP were “below grade level.” That is wrong. Actually, 76 percent on NAEP are basic or above, and 24 percent are below basic. It would be good to reduce the proportion who are “below basic,” but it is 24 percent, not the 70 percent Guggenheim claimed.
That paragraph is a marvel. We’ve never been able to read it without feeling forced to take out pencil and paper. At that point, we attempt to diagram the claims it contains.

It’s hard to believe that a person can create so much confusion merely by stating three percentages, while throwing in one bogus definition. (Since when does the term “grade level” automatically “describe a midpoint on the grading scale where half are above and half are below?”)

Reading Ravitch is a challenge. What can it mean when we in the liberal world accept such a puzzling trumpeter as our leading voice?

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Third Way Dems: Economic Populism Is a Dead End for Democrats


Cowan and Kessler: Economic Populism Is a Dead End for Democrats

The de Blasio-Warren agenda won't travel. Colorado is the real political harbinger.

Dec. 2, 2013 6:57 p.m. ET
If you talk to leading progressives these days, you'll be sure to hear this message: The Democratic Party should embrace the economic populism of New York Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Such economic populism, they argue, should be the guiding star for Democrats heading into 2016. Nothing would be more disastrous for Democrats.
While New Yorkers think of their city as the center of the universe, the last time its mayor won a race for governor or senator—let alone president—was 1869. For the past 144 years, what has happened in the Big Apple stayed in the Big Apple. Some liberals believe Sen. Warren would be the Democratic Party's strongest presidential candidate in 2016. But what works in midnight-blue Massachusetts—a state that has had a Republican senator for a total of 152 weeks since 1979—hasn't sold on a national level since 1960.
The political problems of liberal populism are bad enough. Worse are the actual policies proposed by left-wing populists. The movement relies on a potent "we can have it all" fantasy that goes something like this: If we force the wealthy to pay higher taxes (there are 300,000 tax filers who earn more than $1 million), close a few corporate tax loopholes, and break up some big banks then—presto!—we can pay for, and even expand, existing entitlements. Meanwhile, we can invest more deeply in K-12 education, infrastructure, health research, clean energy and more.
Social Security is exhibit A of this populist political and economic fantasy. A growing cascade of baby boomers will be retiring in the coming years, and the Social Security formula increases their initial benefits faster than inflation. The problem is that since 2010 Social Security payouts to seniors have exceeded payroll taxes collected from workers. This imbalance widens inexorably until it devours the entire Social Security Trust Fund in 2031, according to the Congressional Budget Office. At that point, benefits would have to be slashed by about 23%.
New York City Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio Getty Images
Undeterred by this undebatable solvency crisis, Sen. Warren wants to increase benefits to all seniors, including billionaires, and to pay for them by increasing taxes on working people and their employers. Her approach requires a $750 billion tax hike over the next 10 years that hits mostly Millennials and Gen Xers, plus another $750 billion tax on the businesses that employ them.
Even more reckless is the populists' staunch refusal to address the coming Medicare crisis. In 2030, a typical couple reaching the eligibility age of 65 will have paid $180,000 in lifetime Medicare taxes but will get back $664,000 in benefits. Given that this disparity will be completely unaffordable, Sen. Warren and her acolytes are irresponsibly pushing off budget decisions that will guarantee huge benefit cuts and further tax hikes for Gen Xers and Millennials in a few decades.
As for the promise that unrestrained entitlements won't harm kids and public investments like infrastructure, public schools and college financial aid, haven't we seen this movie before? In the 1960s, the federal government spent $3 on such investments for every $1 on entitlements.
Today, the ratio is flipped. In 10 years, we will spend $5 on the three major entitlement programs (Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid) for every $1 on public investments. And that is without the new expansion of entitlement benefits that the Warren wing of the Democratic Party is proposing. Liberal populists do not even attempt to address this collision course between the Great Society safety net and the New Frontier investments.
On the same day that Bill de Blasio won in New York City, a referendum to raise taxes on high-income Coloradans to fund public education and universal pre-K failed in a landslide. This is the type of state that Democrats captured in 2008 to realign the national electoral map, and they did so through offering a vision of pragmatic progressive government, not fantasy-based blue-state populism. Before Democrats follow Sen. Warren and Mayor-elect de Blasio over the populist cliff, they should consider Colorado as the true 2013 Election Day harbinger of American liberalism.
Mr. Cowan is president of the think tank Third Way, where Mr. Kessler is senior vice president for policy.