Part 4—Our thoughts turn to Albert Brooks: In 1991, Albert Brooks released his thoughtful film, Defending Your Life.
In the (fictional) film, a Los Angeles ad man dies in a car wreck and goes to the afterlife. We recall being disappointed by the film itself, but taken by its comedic premise.
By the time the film appeared, we had already wondered, for years, if human life might be an amusement staged by and for the gods. That had always been immortal Homer's belief. Down through the years, we'd already spotted several signs supporting the great poet's theory.
We had already formulated a deathless question. When we were sent to the afterlife, would we be confronted by laughing friends wondering why we hadn't noticed that the whole thing had been a cosmic joke?
"You didn't even realize when X occurred?" We often wondered if that was what we would hear laughing friends say.
We thought of the 1991 Albert Brooks vehicle when we read William Saletan's latest at Slate. He started with an important claim: Most people who voted for Donald J. Trump aren't racist xenophobic misogynist homophobe bigots.
Most people who voted for Donald J. Trump don't belong in a basket of deplorables, or so Saletan pretty much said. But then, the scribe defined his own five baskets of Trump voters—and, as the analysts tore at their hair, we thought about Albert Brooks.
Down through the years, we've often asked a basic question: Are the life forms found in the upper-end press corps actually human? Are they actually part of the species defined, long ago, as "the rational animal?"
Are our journalists actually human? Their skill levels are so stupendously low that the question has to be asked.
We'll talk about Saletan's piece in some future post. For today, we'll talk about David Leonhardt's paean to charter schools. We encountered it last Sunday morning when we read the Sunday Review.
Out on the Sunday Review's front page, we'd already read the Maureen Dowd groaner and the Filipovic philippic. We had even clicked Filipovic's link. It had left us in despair.
They have one skill, the analysts cried. They construct scary stories about Us and Them! They know how to do nothing else!
Leonhardt's essay, which appeared on page two, came from a different basket. It came from the one where journalists blow past obvious technical problems as they repeat Official Approved Completely Standard Press Corps Establishment Script.
In this case, Leonhardt's work involved charter schools. Can he be human? we asked.
Let's establish the basic parameters of the current drama. In this corner, we aren't opposed to charter schools. We support their continued existence, especially in service to low-income kids.
On balance, we think charter schools are part of a needed set of experiments. We aren't opposed to charter schools. We're simply opposed to ludicrous, scripted claims advanced on their behalf.
In the opposite corner, Leonhardt's intellectual greatness adds to the current drama. He doesn't simply write for the Times. According to all standardized scripts, he's one of the best and brightest.
Leonhardt prepped at Horace Mann, then graduated from Yale in 1994. In 1998, he won a Peter Lisagor Award for Exemplary Journalism in the Business Journalism category. How much more do we have to say about the obvious greatness?
The subject of our rumination is no ink-stained wretch. In 2011, he became Washington bureau chief of the Times. That same year, he won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary, though we're fairly sure that no one remembers why.
In 2013, he became editor of The Upshot, holding pen for the Times' biggest brains. Skeptics, please! How much more do we have to tell you?
According to establishment writ, Leonhardt is one of the Times' biggest brains. But alas! After we read the Sunday Review, we issued a challenge to the analysts: Could they find a single paragraph in his piece which made unassailable sense?
We can't recall their answer. But as we ponder the broken world of upper-end, upper-class American journalism, let's review a few basic points about Leonhardt's paean to charters.
(For the record, we aren't opposed to charter schools. Have we established that yet?)
Uh-oh! Within our sprawling analysis chamber, warning lights began to flash as soon as Leonhardt's headline appeared.
"Schools That Work," the headline said. How many bungled pieces have appeared beneath that rubric down through the many long years?
Predictably, Leonhardt's "schools that work" turned out to be a certain type of charter. We support the existence of such schools. Here's how Leonhardt limned them:
LEONHARDT (11/6/16): The briefest summary is this: Many charter schools fail to live up to their promise, but one type has repeatedly shown impressive results.According to Leonhardt, those schools are the "schools that work." But how "impressive" are their results? How does he know that they work?
Hannah Larkin, the principal at Match, refers to such schools as “high expectations, high support” schools. They devote more of their resources to classroom teaching and less to almost everything else. They keep students in class for more hours. They set high standards for students and try to instill confidence in them. They focus on giving teachers feedback about their craft and helping them get better.
Leonhardt was soon presenting evidence in support of his claims. Among our analysts, Leonhardt's work produced tears of rage.
Like so many before him, Leonhardt seemed to have no earthly idea of the dangers which seemed to lurk in the data he offered. We thought of Albert Brooks as the Lisagor winner intoned:
LEONHARDT: The latest batch of evidence about this approach is among the most rigorous. Professors at M.I.T., Columbia, Michigan and Berkeley have tracked thousands of charter-school applicants, through high school and beyond, in Boston, where most charters fit the “high expectations, high support” model.For starters, Leonhardt seemed innocent of a basic fact—you can't put blind faith in the professors when it comes to matters like this. That said, he articulated an important point about the type of research he would go on to cite.
Crucially, the researchers took several steps to make sure the findings were real. They compared lottery winners with losers, controlling for the fact that families who applied for the lotteries were different from families who didn’t. They also counted as charter students all those who enrolled, including any who later left.
When you talk to the professors about their findings, you hear a degree of excitement that’s uncommon for academic researchers. “Relative to other things that social scientists and education policy people have tried to boost performance—class sizes, tracking, new buildings—these schools are producing spectacular gains,” said Joshua Angrist, an M.I.T. professor.
Uh-oh! According to Leonhardt, the professors had "compared lottery winners with losers, controlling for the fact that families who applied for the lotteries were different from families who didn’t." Let's make sure we understand what that important statement means.
In many locations, admission to charter schools is determined through a lottery. Families who want their kids to attend a charter throw their names in a hat.
Based on the lottery drawing, some of these kids are allowed to attend the charter. Other kids are not. Those kids—the ones who lose the lottery—return to their regular public schools. In subsequent research, the professors compare test scores achieved by the lottery winners in charter schools to test scores achieved by the lottery losers in their regular schools.
In one way, this comparison makes perfect sense. In another way, it doesn't.
Uh-oh! Leonhardt makes a key assertion in the passage we've posted. Possibly sampling Tolstoy, he refers to "the fact that families who applied for the lotteries were different from families who didn’t."
Let's make sure we know what that means. Here's the theory behind that statement:
Families who apply to charters might be seen as the Strivers. They want their kids to get something better. They're volunteering for a regimen in which their kids will spend many more hours in school, in which a great deal more will be asked of their kids and of them as well.
Families who don't apply for charters might be seen as the Slackers. This group will includes some thoroughly admirable families, and some highly dysfunctional families. But according to Leonhardt, the Striver families are, on average, different from the Slacker families. Guess what?
Almost surely, their kids, on average, will be different too.
Remember, it's Leonhardt who says these two types of families are different. If we accept his claim, this is what happens after that lottery happens:
The lucky lottery winners attend the charter school. The school's enrollment is 100 percent Striver kids.
The unlucky lottery losers go back to their regular schools. They are thrown in with a handful of Striver kids and a whole lot of Slacker kids. (Through no fault of their own, a substantial number of the Slacker kids may come from truly dysfunctional homes.)
As such, the lottery winners and the lottery losers are now attending school each day in substantially different environments. These kids were "the same" when they applied for the lottery. But as a result of the lottery drawing, their subsequent school environments may be massively different, even before any instruction begins.
Up jumps Leonhardt with a discovery: The kids whose schoolmates are all Strivers do better than the kids whose schoolmates are Slackers! The results are "impressive," he says.
It's hard to know why any modestly skilled human being would be surprised by such an outcome. Forget about differences in instructional models. Even if intructional models were equal, you'd assume that kids would learn more in the all-Striver school, less in the school with the Slackers.
The lottery winners are now going to a school in a much altered environment. It's hardly surprising if they do better than the lottery losers.
But marks like Leonhardt have managed to blow past this obvious research glitch down through these many long years. They prepped at Mann, then starred at Yale. But they're fools for research like this, and they're fools for the corporate line.
Leonhardt's failure to note this obvious research glitch isn't his only failure. With spectacular journalistic dumbness, he ignores decades of scandal and error as he details the "impressive results" and "spectacular gains" found in the charter schools:
LEONHARDT (continuing directly): Students who go to Boston’s charter schools learn reading and math better and faster than students elsewhere. They are more likely to take A.P. tests and to do well on them. Their SAT scores are higher than for similar students elsewhere—an average of 51 points higher on the math SAT. Many more students attend a four-year college, suggesting that the benefits don’t disappear over time.Hopeless! According to Leonhardt, "some of Boston's charters," despite their surfeit of low-income kids, are producing test scores "that resemble those of upper-middle-class public schools."
The gains are large enough that some of Boston’s charters, despite enrolling mostly lower-income students, have test scores that resemble those of upper-middle-class public schools. The seventh graders at the Brooke Charter schools in East Boston and Roslindale fare as well on a state math test as students at the prestigious Boston Latin school, the country’s oldest public school and a school with an admissions exam.
Leonhardt treats that as a triumph of the will, full stop. He shows no sign of understanding an extremely basic fact:
Time and again in the past thirty years, spectacular results of that type have turned out to be the results of fraud! In recent years, we've had extremely high-profile examples of this problem in cities like Washington and Atlanta. But life forms like Leonhardt will always proceed as if they don't know this has occurred.
Are some low-income Boston charters producing test scores which match those of upper-end suburban schools? We'd be concerned about test scores like that. Leonhardt's too dumb to know, or too careful to say, that there could be a problem here.
Leonhardt's cluelessness seems to know no limit. Neither does his preening self-regard:
LEONHARDT: So why isn’t there a national consensus to create more of these schools?Exhibitionist, please! Leonhardt "confesses" to disappointment when a low-income charter school fails to achieve 100 percent graduation from college.
Because the politics of education are messy.
First, no school can cure poverty on its own. At Match [charter school], for example, only about 55 percent of students go on to graduate from a four-year college. That’s much higher than at most public schools, but I’ll confess I still find it a bit disappointing because it means some charter graduates still struggle. And when we journalists write about schools (or most anything else), we often emphasize the negative. We have paid more attention to controversies—like harsh suspension policies in some places—than to an overwhelming pattern of success.
Second, many people understandably worry that charters harm children who attend the rest of the public-school system. But there is good news here, too. Two recent analyses of multiple studies concluded that charters do not hurt outcomes at other schools—and may even help improve them, by creating competition.
In the modern context, journalists like Leonhardt are constantly building their personal brands. Don't forget to send your words of admiration to this consummate stooge for his moral grandeur.
That second highlighted point is just sad. Leonhardt is such a willing stooge that he says these charters "may even help improve" the outcomes at their cities' regular schools.
That's always possible, of course; everything always is. That said, how strong is the evidence in support of this claim? This passage comes from the source to which Leonhardt links and refers:
GILL (11/2/16): Collectively, the 11 studies examined effects in 11 different cities and states plus one nationwide sample. One study included separate assessments in several different communities, and a few communities were studied more than once...In ten cases out of sixteen, there was zero evidence that charter schools helped improve the regular schools. In the other six cases, the studies found evidence of small positive effects.
As the table indicates, the literature provides some support for the “healthy competition” hypothesis and almost none for the hypothesis that students in district schools are harmed by the growth of charters. Six studies found some evidence of positive effects, four found no effects, and one found negative effects. Breaking the results out by locations, in six cases that encompass five cities and states, there is evidence that charter schools produce (small) positive effects on the achievement of students in nearby public schools. In nine other cases, encompassing eight cities and states and one nationwide sample, charter schools have been found to have no effect on students in nearby district schools, positive or negative. The literature has only a single case—involving a single school district—in which charter schools have been found to have negative effects on the achievement of students in nearby district schools.
That's extremely modest evidence, to the extent that it can be regarded as evidence at all. We recall a point we cited earlier—sensible people shouldn't assume competence and even-handedness on the part of the people who conduct these studies. The record is replete with many thumbs being placed on quite a few scales.
From start to finish, Leonhardt's essay is the work of a hopeless incompetent—possibly of a slacker. It's also the work of an eager reader of standard establishment script.
For what it's worth, Jonathan Chait rushed past the same rather obvious research conundrum in this recent post in praise of charter schools. And Chait is plainly on the brighter end among modern liberal journalists.
After they read the Sunday Review, the analysts stared into space for a good long time. We returned to our sumptuous private quarters and pondered Albert Brooks.
On page two, the Sunday Review had featured Leonhardt, the brightest and best. We found no clear evidence of human status.
On page three, Bruni reported overhearing a discussion about the Clintons' many murders. He was reporting this breaking news twenty-two years too late.
On the front page of the Sunday Review, Filipovic was linking to German Lopez. Each put their tribe's one skill on display, the ability to see one of The Others under every bed.
Topping page one was the ludicrous Dowd. All the way back in 1992, Katherine Boo had warned the world about her.
They'd been staging this gong-show for twenty-four years! Two evenings later, Trump won.
It isn't just the Times: Modern journalists refuse to acknowledge the fact of our widespread cheating scandals. They refuse to consider the possibility that such conduct might occur somewhere else.
A few months ago, the Washington Post produced a fascinating example of this imagine-no-evil approach. Remind us to tell you about it!