Has bogus “he said-she said” reporting led to the impending shutdown?


Salon tries to offer examples: Has bogus “he said-she said” reporting led to the (impending) government shutdown?

That’s what it says in the headline to a new piece at Salon. The piece, which strikes us as very weak, is reprinted from BillMoyers.com.

The piece is lousy work. It’s the kind of work in which liberals copy Fox News techniques while lacking the skill of Fox News.

Without any question, the coming shutdown is idiocy in action. That said, should “Beltway reporters” be blamed? This is the way Joshua Holland begins his piece:
HOLLAND (9/30/13): It’s almost certain that we’ll see the government shut down on Tuesday. The last time that happened, in 1996, it cost $2.1 billion in today’s dollars. Breaching the debt limit would be far, far worse—nobody knows how bad, exactly, but everyone agrees that it would be really bad. The risk of finding out has never been greater. This showdown is by far the most dangerous of a series of fiscal “crises” that have been contrived during the Obama presidency.

Beltway reporters who see their professed neutrality as a higher ground bear an enormous amount of responsibility for encouraging this perversion of democratic governance. With a few notable exceptions, the media have framed what Jonathan Chait called “a kind of quasi-impeachment” in typical he said-she said fashion, obscuring the fact that the basic norms that govern Congress have been thrown out the window by a small cabal of tea party-endorsed legislators from overwhelmingly Republican districts. The media treat unprecedented legislative extortion as typical partisan negotiations, and in doing so they normalize it.
That sounds bad—real bad. With only “a few exceptions,” the media have obscured the nature of this lunacy. According to Holland, “Beltway reporters...bear an enormous amount of responsibility for encouraging this perversion of democratic governance.”

That sounds very bad, and the indictment is sweeping. But when Holland gets around to giving examples, he only gives three from “Beltway reporters,” though you might think you’re seeing four. And if you actually click his links, two of his three alleged examples turn out to be very soft:
HOLLAND: In the past, a few minor sweeteners have been tacked onto debt-limit hikes. Debt limit increases have also been added to budget bills negotiated separately by the parties in order to avoid a vote altogether. What makes the current ploy novel is they are offering essentially the entirety of Mitt Romney’s agenda—in essence, a demand to do over the 2012 election and, while they’re at it, 2008 as well.

Yet you wouldn’t fully appreciate the audacity of this tactic by reading standard Beltway coverage. As Brian Beutler notes in Salon, Time Magazine reporter Zeke Miller calls this “negotiating technique...is by no means novel. Hostage taking—by promising harm if you do not get your way—has long been a standard way of doing business in Washington.” James Fallows, decrying what he calls a “failure of journalism,” flagged the headline, “Parties Digging in Their Heels as Hourglass Empties.” (The Courier-Post, a Gannett paper, similarly went with, “Lawmakers dig in their heels; government shutdown nearer.”) And Politico’s Jake Sherman and John Bresnahan described the ransom note as simply a set of “demands for reform.” All of this coverage reeks of false equivalency, implying yet again that “both sides do it.”
Let’s run through these alleged examples, in which “Beltway reporters,” through their “standard Beltway coverage,” must be assigned “an enormous amount of responsibility for encouraging this perversion of democratic governance.”

First example: The piece by Miller at Time is fairly lame. It’s also a four-paragraph blog post. Somehow, we don’t think the public discourse was deeply affected.

Second example: The headline cited by Fallows isn’t from Miller’s piece, although you might think so from Holland’s remarkably hazy writing. According to Fallows, the headline “is from a proprietary newsletter I read this morning, and about which I am leaving off the identifying details.”

That headline certainly isn’t false; nor is it part of the “Beltway reporting” to which the public has access. Beyond that, it’s impossible to evaluate the work which ran beneath this headline, in part because Fallows wouldn’t say who the newsletter came from. Darlings, it just isn’t done!

Two examples are left. Holland cites a headline from a news report in a (relatively insignificant) Louisville paper, the Courier-Post. The headline sits above a report which seems unobjectionable to us. Indeed: right in paragraph 3, the Courier-Post reporters pin the blame for the impending shutdown where it belongs, on John Boehner. Just that quickly, they go beyond normal press conventions in telling us who is at fault.

That leaves a single three-word phrase from a lengthy Politico report—a report which is very uncomplimentary about the ongoing Republican tactics. By the way:

In the course of that unflattering report in Politico, how does a single reference to “demands for reform” (in paragraph 15) “reek of false equivalency, implying that both sides do it?” Like you, we don’t have the slightest idea. To us, that report in Politico seems rather uncomplimentary regarding the GOP’s conduct.

Are there any major examples of this sort of Beltway reporting? According to Holland, almost every Beltway reporter has engaged in this type of reporting, with only a few exceptions. And yet, with the exception of a four-paragraph blog post, he doesn’t seem to have examples from any major news org.

If everyone has been doing this, where are the major examples from our major news orgs? All reporting matters, of course. But this list of alleged offenses is pathetically thin.

Holland’s piece represents complaining for complaining’s sake. It’s lousy, lazy work. It strikes us as an embarrassment to Moyers and as an indictment of our lazy, floundering tribe.

After all these miserable years, is this the best our team can do? Sadly, indications keep suggesting the answer is yes.

Somehow, Salon saw Cruz getting schooled!


This is what actually happened: In this morning’s column, Paul Krugman says our current situation is “crazy.” It’s hard to deny that it is.

Consider what’s happening as we look ahead to a shutdown, then perhaps to a debt limit debacle. As he closes his column, Krugman outlines the situation—a situation that’s even crazier than he explains in this passage:
KRUGMAN (9/30/13): So how does this end? The votes to fund the government and raise the debt ceiling are there, and always have been: every Democrat in the House would vote for the necessary measures, and so would enough Republicans. The problem is that G.O.P. leaders, fearing the wrath of the radicals, haven’t been willing to allow such votes. What would change their minds?

Ironically, considering who got us into our economic mess, the most plausible answer is that Wall Street will come to the rescue—that the big money will tell Republican leaders that they have to put an end to the nonsense.

But what if even the plutocrats lack the power to rein in the radicals? In that case, Mr. Obama will either let default happen or find some way of defying the blackmailers, trading a financial crisis for a constitutional crisis.

This all sounds crazy, because it is. But the craziness, ultimately, resides not in the situation but in the minds of our politicians and the people who vote for them. Default is not in our stars, but in ourselves.
As described, the situation is crazy. The votes are there in the House—but the Republican majority won’t allow a vote!

In truth, the situation is even crazier than that. There is a substantial Republican majority in the House—but those Republican members received fewer votes than Democrats did in the 2012 congressional elections.

The world’s leading authority on this matter breaks it down like this:
WIKIPEDIA: House Democrats won a plurality nation-wide by over 1.4 million more votes (1.4%), but the Republicans were able to retain a...majority due in part to their advantage in the congressional redistricting process following the 2010 United States Census, and because many Democratic votes were concentrated into urban and minority districts. Both parties had opportunities to redraw congressional districts in their favor, but since the Republican Party won an overwhelming amount of state legislature seats around the country in the 2010 midterm elections, it provided them with an overall advantage.
The GOP has a 234-201 advantage in the House, despite the fact that its candidates received fewer votes than the Dems.

Keeping that fact in mind, how crazy is our current situation? In the House, the party which received fewer votes enjoys a substantial majority. According to Krugman, there are enough votes in the House to fund the government anyway, but that majority party—the one which got fewer votes—won’t allow a vote!

Whatever! The craziness of the current time has been decades in the making. The rise of crackpot “conservative” media has largely fueled The Current Crazy. But have we liberals contributed to The Big Crazy too?

We would say that we have, and that we continue to do so, in several major ways. For today, let’s consider the growing haplessness of Salon.

In the 1990s, Salon was a very smart on-line magazine. In recent years, it has been substantially dumbed down. (It has also had its focus changed, though that’s a different matter.)

We were reminded of this downgrade when we read Salon’s reaction to Ted Cruz’s appearance on yesterday’s Meet the Press. We hadn’t watched the program yet, and so we thrilled to Salon’s claims about what had happened there.

“Ted Cruz schooled on Meet the Press,” Salon’s top headline declared. We also thrilled to this sub-headline: “Host David Gregory didn't hold back, pressing the rogue GOPer on his efforts to defund Obamacare.”

Later, we watched Meet the Press. And we’re sorry, but Ted Cruz didn’t get schooled. And David Gregory did hold a great deal back.

Salon’s cluelessness notwithstanding, Gregory did a terrible job in this lengthy interview. Most pointlessly, he argued the merits of Obamacare with Cruz, rather than the absurdity of Cruz’s procedural tack.

What’s wrong with the GOP approach to the impending shutdown? In tedious eighth grade civics textbooks, you’ll find it in the chapter called, “How a bill becomes law.”

How does a bill become a law? First, it has to pass both houses of Congress. After that, the president has to sign it!

The GOP could take that approach to the repeal of Obamacare. Unfortunately, they lost the Senate and the White House in the last election—again.

Unable to pass the bills they prefer due to their electoral defeats, they have to proceed in the current manner—threatening major disasters to get their objectives met.

As every eighth grader knows, that isn’t the way a bill becomes law. This current mess isn’t a question of the merits of Obamacare. It’s a question of the basic way the American system works.

Gregory skipped past this rather obvious framework. Instead, he got all tangled up in discussions about the merits of Obamacare.

There will never be any way to resolve such disputes. The basic question here is much simpler: If Cruz wants to repeal or defund the health care law, why doesn’t he do so in the normal American way? In the way that gets explained to eighth graders every year?

Gregory was terrible yesterday. Somehow, though, Salon thought it saw Cruz getting schooled by a street-fighting NBC warrior. This cluelessness is part of the liberal world’s contribution to our craziness problem.

For the record, who wrote that piece at Salon? Natasha Lennard, who is described this way in her official ID line:

“Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing.”

Rabble-rousing! That’s good solid fun! It’s fun when we all clown around!

At Salon, the children are playing around, having their endless oodles of fun. Back out in the world where alleged adults reign, we’re all losing altitude fast.

Tomorrow: Reactions to Kristof's remarks

INVISIBLE CHILDREN: Black kids disappeared!


Part 1—Three different worlds: “Three different worlds/We live in three different worlds...”

If Jerry Vale or Don Rondo were active today, they’d have to rewrite their classic hit song.

Back in 1956, Rondo had a fairly large hit with the claim that we live in two different worlds. Today, Amanda Ripley’s ballyhooed book, The Smartest Kids in the World, helps us spot at least three.

Ripley’s book is often extremely weak; often, it seems a bit scam-ridden. That said, the book is often quite interesting as it explores educational cultures around the world.

At one point, Ripley jets to South Korea to show us why that nation’s students score so well on international tests. There seems to be no great mystery there. In his review of Ripley’s book for the Washington Post Outlook section, Jay Mathews describes the world of Korean high school students:
MATHEWS (9/22/13): One of the more intriguing moments in Amanda Ripley’s fine book is the introduction of a Minnesota teenager named Eric to the South Korean public school system. That country has some of the highest average test scores in the world. Eric assumed that every high school class would be flying high, all eyes on the teacher, no nonsense. Instead, during his first day in sociology class, attention was minimal. About a third of the students were asleep.

They were recovering from their evening tutoring academies called “hagwons.” South Korea’s glittering international reputation for academics began to look to Eric more corrosive than inspiring.

“The kids had acted like they lived in the classroom because they essentially did,” Ripley writes. “They spent more than twelve hours there every weekday—and they already went to school almost two months longer than kids back in Minnesota. His classmates slept in their classes for one primal reason: because they were exhausted.”
South Korea has gone over the top in pursuit of academic success. According to Ripley, the Korean government is cracking down on the hagwons, the demanding academies which swing into action after the school day is over.

The Korean government is trying to enforce a ten o’clock curfew on the hagwons! Korea’s educational culture is very different from ours.

For good or for ill, those South Korean kids live in a different world. In terms of its educational culture, Ripley refers to Korea as a “hamster wheel country.”

Finland is another high-scoring country, but it doesn’t have a hamster wheel culture. In Ripley’s telling, its educational culture is much more laid back than the one she found in Korea. Indeed, according to Ripley, Finnish kids have more spare time than kids do over here!

How then does Finland achieve such high test scores? When the horrific Annie Murphy Paul reviewed Ripley’s book for the New York Times, she stressed two parts of Finnish educational culture which Ripley describes in her book.

On the one hand, Paul writes, Finland “ensure[s] high-quality teaching from the beginning, allowing only top students to enroll in teacher-training programs, which are themselves far more demanding than such programs in America.”

In Finland, only high-achieving high school students can hope to become teachers. Persistently, Ripley suggests and claims that this accounts for Finland’s educational success, although she never presents any real evidence that this is the case.

According to Ripley, Finland’s teachers are different from ours. But in a rather peculiar passage, Paul says that Finland’s students are different too.

According to Ripley’s book, Finnish kids care more about school than American students do. On balance, that’s almost surely the case. But in our view, the following account from Paul’s review is odd in several respects.

“Kim” is a 15-year-old Oklahoman who spent a year in Finland as an exchange student:
PAUL (8/25/13): Kim soon notices something else that’s different about her school in Pietarsaari, and one day she works up the courage to ask her classmates about it. “Why do you guys care so much?” Kim inquires of two Finnish girls. “I mean, what makes you work hard in school?” The students look baffled by her question. “It’s school,” one of them says. “How else will I graduate and go to university and get a good job?” It’s the only sensible answer, of course, but its irrefutable logic still eludes many American students, a quarter of whom fail to graduate from high school. Ripley explains why: Historically, Americans “hadn’t needed a very rigorous education, and they hadn’t gotten it. Wealth had made rigor optional.” But now, she points out, “everything had changed. In an automated, global economy, kids needed to be driven; they need to know how to adapt, since they would be doing it all their lives. They needed a culture of rigor.”
Finland’s students are conscientious about school; American students are not. In Paul’s account of Ripley’s book, American kids drop out of school because “wealth had made rigor optional” here in the U.S.

Does Ripley say that the American students drop out of school because “wealth had made rigor optional in America?” That quote comes from page 192 of her book, but she isn’t talking about drop-out rates at the time. She is talking about the (alleged) lack of academic rigor in American high schools.

On the other hand, Ripley does say this about wealth and drop-out rates at an earlier point (page 49): “Korea had one of the highest high-school graduation rates in the world, far higher than the United States, despite having dramatically less wealth.”

Perhaps that remark, and a few others like it, led Paul to craft that strange account, in which Americans kids drop out of school because they’ve been spoiled, made indolent by their nation’s wealth.

Can we talk? Surely Ripley understands that there are many American students whose attitudes about high school and college match those expressed by that Finnish girl. There are lots of kids in American high schools who are striving to do the best they can on their way to a college career.

It’s also true that many American students don’t have attitudes like that by the time they reach high school. We think those kids are largely invisible in Ripley’s slippery book.

Alas! Here in the United States, we live in quite a few different worlds. In our view, Ripley tries hard in most of her book to avoid this obvious fact.

Finland is a small, middle-class nation with few minorities and very few immigrants. The country is full of middle-class kids with middle-class educational values.

The United States has lots of kids like that too. But the U.S. is a much more complex society, with a brutal, destructive racial history and a lot of immigration from low-literacy points of origin.

Kids in Scarsdale are eager to “go to university” too, just like that student in Pietarsaari. On average, it may well be that middle-class Finnish kids are more serious about school than middle-class American kids—on average.

Relentlessly, Ripley says and implies that this is true, and she may well be right—on average.

On average, middle-class Finnish kids may be more serious about school than their middle-class American peers. That said, the biggest shortfalls in American schooling take place in other American worlds. Those worlds are almost completely avoided in Ripley’s slippery, well-scripted book.

Ralph Ellison was an invisible man. Black kids are largely invisible in Ripley’s book. Issues of poverty are lightly glossed. Race is completely avoided.

Finland is a small, middle-class world—a largely unicultural world. (We don’t mean that as a criticism.) By way of contrast, the United States contains multitudes. For better or worse, American students live in quite a few different worlds.

All week, we’ll discuss the world of the American kids Ripley prefers to disappear. We’ll discuss the role our different worlds play in the educational data which have Ripley mouthing standard claims about the need for certain types of education reform.

American kids live in several different worlds. Shouldn’t this book have discussed that?

Tomorrow: What is Finland actually like? Also, a puzzling claim

Treat yourselves: Back in 1956, we only lived in two different worlds. To hear Don Rondo work his magic, you can just click here.

For Jerry Vale, click this. Mr. Vale appears as himself in Goodfellas and in Casino.

AMANDA RIPLEY’S BELIEVE IT BY LAW: Let them come to Tiistila!


Part 5—A truly appalling passage: Are countries like Finland, Korea and Poland staging educational miracles?

Pretty much no—they are not. Consider one example from Amanda Ripley’s interesting new book, The Smartest Kids in the World.

In the talented Ripley’s scam-ridden book, “the Polish miracle” (Ripley’s phrase) is said to be a miracle of improvement. But from 2003 to 2009, American students showed more improvement on the PISA’s three tests than Polish students did.

(Ripley ignores results from the TIMSS and the PIRLS, two other major international tests. Results from the 2012 PISA have not yet been released.)

Next week, we’ll review Ripley’s explanation for the high test scores from Korea and Finland. In all honesty, those nations aren’t performing “miracles” either, although their test scores in reading and math frequently lead the world.

No, Virgilia! Poland, Finland and Korea aren’t producing miracles. That said, there is one true educational miracle on display in this ballyhooed book.

That miracle involves Ripley herself. We don’t mean that as a compliment.

Miraculous! As recently as 2010, Ripley was avoiding education assignments from her editors at Time. As she explains at the start of her book, she just found the topic so tedious!

But how amazing! Just three years later, Ripley is being hailed as a leading authority on the whole world’s public schools! We think that's a truly miraculous rise, and a bit of a scam on the world.

It’s clear that Ripley has done a lot of background work during this transformation. It also seems clear that her work should be regarded with a great deal of skepticism—partly due to her lack of experience, partly due to her apparent dishonesty in service to Elite Corporate Themes and the edicts of Hard Pundit Law.

Consider a part of her book which we’d be inclined to call repellent. It deals with the amazing success Finland has had with its immigrant students.

For the record, Finland doesn’t have many such students. Korea and Poland have so few immigrant kids that the PISA can’t even present any data on immigrant kids in those countries.

That isn’t the case with Finland. Finland has started permitting some immigration in recent years. The country now has enough immigrant students to generate PISA data.

Sure enough! Ripley sets out to tell the world about Finland’s astonishing work in this area. The inspiring story begins on page 158, under the eye-catching headline, “Black people in Finland.”

As she starts unspooling a scam, Ripley presents some basic data. “Kim” is an American exchange student on whom Ripley relies for anecdotes:
RIPLEY (page 158): The more time I spent in Finland, the more I appreciated the rare balance it had struck. Finland had achieved rigor [in its schools] without ruin. It was impossible not to notice something else, too: During my time in Pietarsaari, I saw exactly one black person. In Kim’s classes, everyone looked basically the same. Nationwide, only 3 percent of Finland’s students had immigrant parents (compared to 20 percent of teenagers in the United States).
In the source Ripley cites, the more precise figure for Finland is 2.5 percent.

After several pages of bashing the way American schools treat “black, Hispanic and immigrant kids,” Ripley begins to introduce the paradisical Finnish experience.

“Let them come to Berlin,” John F. Kennedy said. Ripley went to Tiistila:
RIPLEY (page 161): Finland was a homogeneous place, but getting less so. The number of foreigners had increased over 600 percent since 1990, and most of the newcomers had ended up in Helsinki.

To find out how diversity changed the culture of rigor [in Finland’s schools], I went to the Tiistila school, just outside Helsinki, where a third of the kids were immigrants, many of them refugees. The school enrolled children aged six to thirteen. It was surrounded by concrete block apartment buildings that looked more communist than Nordic.
At this remarkable school, Ripley encounters kids from an array of nations. Right on cue, she also encounters an inspiring sixth-grade teacher.

As Ripley’s story continues, Heikki Vuorinen gives his class an assignment, then steps into the hall to waste his time talking to Ripley. As if in accordance with Hard Pundit Law, he turns out to be a saint:
RIPLEY: Wearing a purple R-shirt, jeans, and small, rectangular glasses, Vuorinen proudly reported that he had kids from nine different countries that year, including China, Somalia, Russia and Kosovo. Many had single parents. Beyond that, he was reluctant to speculate.

“I don’t want to think about their backgrounds too much,” he said, running his hand through his thinning blond hair. Then he smiled. “There are twenty-three pearls in my classroom. I don’t want to scratch them.”
That was a take! As he offers his saintly remarks, Vuorinen seems to have come right out of central casting. He also seems to have walked straight out of a Standard Elite Pundit Script.

Vuorinen tells Ripley that he doesn’t want to “label” his students. He doesn't want to focus on their cultural challenges or on their relative poverty.

“He seemed acutely aware of the effects that expectations could have on his teaching,” Ripley admiringly writes, reciting a familiar point right out of the Standard Playbook. At this point, she drops an ugly, unintelligent bomb.

“I’d never heard a U.S. teacher talk this way,” Ripley inexcusably says.

At this point, Ripley launches a minor attack on Diane Ravitch. In Ripley’s view, Ravitch has overstated the effects of poverty on American students. “In Finland, Vuorinen said the opposite of what Ravitch was saying in America,” Ripley rather pointedly says.

Everything is so much better when it happens in Finland!

By now, the direction of Ripley's mini-novel is unmistakably clear. And sure enough! Eight pages into this rumination, we finally get the good news. According to Ripley, those immigrant kids at the Tiistila school have been knocking it out of the park:
RIPLEY (page 165): At Vuorinen’s school, all fifth graders had been tested in math two years earlier. It was one way that the Finnish government made sure that schools were working. Unlike in the United States, the accountability tests were precision targeted; the government tested only a sample of students. It usually took just one hour.

Compared to the rest of Finland, the Tiistila kids performed above average. That was impressive: Better than average in Finland means better than average just about anywhere else.

Tiistila students were diverse and good at math. The school was inspiring. It was also different from U.S. schools in almost every way...
Tiistila is different from U.S. schools in almost every way!

The public hanging continues from there as Ripley counts the ways this Finnish school is better than anything here. Averting our gaze from this journo porn, let’s discuss what she has already said.

According to Ripley, Tiistila’s fifth graders had tested above average in math two years before. Indeed, the brilliant little (one-third) immigrant school had outperformed the rest of Finland! Given Finland’s international status, this meant that the school had outperformed almost every place in the world!

From that claim, which can’t be confirmed, we are apparently supposed to infer that the immigrant kids in Vuorinen’s current sixth grade class were performing above the Finnish average in math too. No, that doesn’t make any sense. But that’s plainly the drift of the story.

(For the record, we don’t understand the apparent contradiction in the first paragraph we’ve presented. All fifth graders got tested, we’re told, even though the Finnish government tests “only a sample of students.” Whatever!)

The drift of this eight-page passage is perfectly clear. The Finns work miracles with their immigrant kids, unlike their ratty counterparts over here in the States.

Ripley is thrilled by Vuorinen’s sincerity and by his thinning blond hair. Indeed, she’s so thrilled that she forgets to provide the actual data about Finland’s immigrant kids! We refer to the data which aren’t anecdotal—the actual data which actually come from the actual PISA itself.

How well is Finland actually doing with its immigrant kids? According to results on the PISA, the truth is quite different from the impression conveyed by Ripley’s anecdote—and plainly, Ripley knows this. She cites the corresponding data for the United States, France, Germany and Australia in an earlier, scolding passage on page 160. But she never remembers to cite the data for brilliant Finland itself.

In fact, large achievement gaps exist between native-born Finnish students and Finland’s immigrant students. We don’t offer that as a criticism of Finland’s schools, and certainly not of those immigrant children, who face so many challenges. We offer that to suggest that Ripley is conning her readers again in that passage about Tiistila, which is so “inspiring” and so unlike the U.S.

If we review the actual data, how large are the achievement gaps for Finland’s immigrant students? You can see the large gap in Figure 5.6 in this PISA publication, which Ripley repeatedly cites in her endnotes. Or you can look at the relevant scores on the 2009 PISA by using the PISA Data Explorer:
Average scores in reading, 2009 PISA, Finland:
Native-born Finnish students: 538
First-generation immigrant students: 449

Average scores in math, 2009 PISA, Finland:
Native-born Finnish students: 542
First-generation immigrant students: 479

Average scores in science, 2009 PISA, Finland:
Native-born Finnish students: 556
First-generation immigrant students: 463
In her novelized treatment of the Tiistila school, Ripley gives the impression that the brilliant school’s immigrant kids are outperforming Finland as a whole. In fact, immigrant students in Finland scored far below the nation’s average on the 2009 PISA. They also scored below the average for the 34 OECD nations as a whole.

We don’t mean this as a criticism of Finland’s schools. We don’t mean that as a criticism of Finland’s immigrant kids. Many of them are refugees from the world’s trouble spots. They’ve all had to adjust to a new culture and language, just like so many deserving kids are doing over here.

We mean this as a criticism of Ripley, who doesn’t seem especially honest. As we read this intriguing book, its author seems involved in a series of cons as she picks and chooses her data—as she offers novelized anecdotes which seem designed to mislead.

Much more remains to be said about Ripley’s ballyhooed book. Her book is very interesting. Unfortunately, it often seems like a well-scripted con.

It may be that Ripley is so new to education that she doesn’t understand what she’s doing. It may be that she herself has gotten conned concerning the preferred talking-points of the elite pundit world.

But that passage about the Tiistila school really is a pip. The anecdote doesn’t make any sense, and Ripley ignores the relevant data, of which she is plainly aware. She offers sweeping attacks on American teachers, attacks which are utterly brainless.

It adds up to a familiar point. Those miraculous Finns have conquered the world. All the big dopes are Over Here! Why can't we have better teachers! People more like me!

That said, Ripley’s book has produced an educational miracle. Miraculously, this book has established its inexperienced author as a leading authority on the public schools of the entire world!

Next week, we’ll be moving to a new focus in our central posts. But we plan to continue offering posts about Ripley’s remarkable book.

This book is full of passages which seem designed to mislead. That said, there are two big winners from this book—Ripley herself, and a wide array of Musty Elite Talking Points.

You get ahead by pimping these lines. Ripley proves this point.

The upper-end press corps is highly unskilled!


This work is amazingly bad: The upper-end press corps is very unskilled. It’s hard to grasp how low the intellectual standards are within this group.

For an example, consider the way the Washington Post and the Atlantic have reported a new bunch of data.

We’ll start with the Washington Post. Yesterday morning, two education writers reported the new SAT scores for students in the DC region and inj the nation as a whole:
ST. GEORGE AND ANDERSON (9/26/13): SAT scores hit eight-year high in Va.; D.C. also sees gains

Virginia students received their highest scores ever on the modern SAT college admission test this year, and scores also rose in the District even as national averages remained unchanged. Maryland’s scores dropped for the third straight year, according to data for the Class of 2013 released Thursday.
If you know anything—anything at all—you know we’re in dangerous territory here. Still, those gains in average scores in Virginia and DC sounded pretty darn good.

Alas! The Post had started us out on burgundy. We soon hit the harder stuff:
ST. GEORGE AND ANDERSON: Nationally, the results for the Class of 2013 mirrored those for the preceding year’s class. Average scores in critical reading (496), math (514) and writing (488) were all unchanged. Each section of the exam is worth 800 points.

What’s more, the share of students who met or exceeded a benchmark that the College Board considers a key predictor of “college and career readiness”—a composite score of 1550—has been virtually unchanged for the past five years. The share now stands at 43 percent.

Considered another way, that means 57 percent of this year’s high school graduates who took the test did not meet the readiness benchmark.

“While some might see stagnant scores as no news, we at the College Board consider it a call to action,” David Coleman, the nonprofit organization’s president, said in a conference call with reporters. He said schools must expand access to rigorous course work for all students. “We are impatient with the state of progress.”
By the mandates of Hard Pundit Law, gloom is required in stories like this. On a national basis, the average score remained unchanged! This was soon described as “stagnation.”

Gack! As everyone knows, it’s dangerous to make comparisons from one year to the next with the SAT—or from one state to the next. The SAT is taken voluntarily—and almost every year, a larger portion of the student population chooses to take the test.

This tends to suggest that a less “elite” group of students is being tested each year. This makes it hard to compare average scores from one year to the next.

If you don’t know that, you don’t know anything about testing. At the Post, Donna St. George and Nick Anderson showed little sign of knowing that in their lengthy report.

Eventually, they issued a partial warning about this matter. But if readers blinked, they missed the warning, which was partial and heavily veiled:
ST. GEORGE AND ANDERSON: Michael J. Petrilli, an education analyst at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, said college admission test scores should be read with caution because the test takers are not a representative sample from the nation’s high schools. But, he said, the unchanged national SAT scores dovetail with other national test data that show stagnant achievement in high school.

“You can say that at the 12th-grade level, the major trend, as has been the case for many years, is flat,” Petrilli said, adding that the trend contrasts with growth in earlier grades. “It’s one of the great questions in education policy today: Why have the gains at the lower level not translated into gains at the higher level?”
In that one sentence in paragraph 10, Petrilli was paraphrased giving a partial account of this well-known, obvious problem. By Hard Pundit Law, he immediately proceeded to a gloomy paraphrased rumination about the nation’s “stagnant achievement.”

Petrilli is very bright. We have no record of his full remarks to the reporters on this subject. But St. George and Anderson, and their editor, ought to be removed from this beat for making this presentation, which thoroughly failed to inform Post readers about the interpretive dangers here.

Truly, that was gruesome reporting. Over at the Atlantic, Julia Ryan was worse.

Ryan seems thoroughly clueless about the interpretive problems. How do people of this caliber get jobs in the upper-end press?
RYAN (9/26/13): This Year's SAT Scores Are Out, and They're Grim

Of the 1.66 million high school students in the class of 2013 who took the SAT, only 43 percent were academically prepared for college-level work, according to this year’s SAT Report on College & Career Readiness. For the fifth year in a row, fewer than half of SAT-takers received scores that qualified them as “college-ready.”

The College Board considers a score of 1550 to be the “College and Career Readiness Benchmark.” Students who meet the benchmark are more likely to enroll in a four-year college, more likely to earn a GPA of a B- or higher their freshman year, and more likely to complete their degree.

“While some might see stagnant scores as no news, the College Board considers them a call to action. These scores can and must change—and the College Board feels a sense of responsibility to help make that happen,” the report said.
Ryan’s report includes two graphics. The first is very hard to interpret. As if by Hard (Elite) Pundit Law, she adopted a gloomy tone throughout, from that “grim” headline on down.

Ryan never said a world about the problem with making year-to-year comparisons. She makes such comparisons all through her piece without discussing the dangers.

It’s very hard to make year to year comparisons with the SAT. If you don’t know that, you don’t know anything about testing.

Julia Ryan doesn’t know that! Just so you’ll know, “JULIA RYAN writes for and produces The Atlantic’s Education Channel.”

Rubes know, the high elites don't: The very first commenter to Ryan’s piece understood what we’ve just told you:
COMMENTER: I wonder how much of this decline in quality is driven by increasing the size of the testing pool. In other words, back in the olden days, only the top 20% of students reliably took the SAT and went to college, whereas now the top 60% of students take the SAT, so the scores would be expected to go down as the pool size increases. What would be interesting would be to see how the numbers have changed for the top 20% over time, since that would be more indicative of how educational quality is changing. (Note that the numbers are for illustration only.)
At the Atlantic, readers understand this stuff. The person who produces the Education Channel doesn’t seem to.

One final question. Why does the College Board (the SAT) release a report of this type?

The College Board’s official report says nothing about the interpretive dangers, even as it notes the expansion in the size and makeup of the student pool being tested each year. A competent press corps would ask the hapless David Coleman why he would do such a thing.

AMANDA RIPLEY’S BELIEVE IT BY LAW: Clueless in Pseudojournaliststan!


Interlude—Ripley does Premont: To our eye, Amanda Ripley seems a bit clueless about public schools.

There’s no reason why she shouldn’t be clueless—or gullible, perhaps just naïve. At the start of her new book, The Smartest Kids in the World, Ripley says that she actively avoided writing about education until 2010, when Time assigned her to do a profile of Michelle Rhee.

She bungled that profile in basic ways. After that, she got taken in by DC’s rising test scores.

Ripley was a naïf about public schools as of 2010. But so what? Three years later, she is being actively promoted as an expert on the whole world’s public schools!

That said, she sometimes seems to write from a nation named Cluelessjournalistan. For an example of the work which defines that troubled land’s culture, consider Ripley’s lengthy report in the current Atlantic.

On-line, Ripley’s clueless work appears beneath the headings shown below. We’ll assume she didn’t compose them, but they capture the tone of the piece:
The Case Against High-School Sports
The United States routinely spends more tax dollars per high-school athlete than per high-school math student—unlike most countries worldwide. And we wonder why we lag in international education rankings?
Is that true? To the extent that we lag at all, does the United States “lag in international education rankings” because we “spend more tax dollars per high-school athlete than per high-school math student?”

Everything is possible! That said, it’s hard to know why such spending would explain the fact that we lag the world’s highest-scoring nations in tests of the world’s fourth-graders. Too much spending on dodgeball, perhaps?

Whatever! In truth, those headings don’t make much sense. But some editor in Upper Rubeistan bowed to that slumbering nation’s culture—a culture of simple-minded over-statement about matters our upper-class journalists don’t seem to care much about.

That said, let’s focus on Ripley herself. How clueless—how inexperienced, how gullible—does she sometimes seem in that lengthy article in an historic, widely-respected American journal?

To our long-suffering eye, Ripley seems very clueless, almost insultingly so. To demonstrate her point about the pernicious effects of high school sports, she wastes our time with a lengthy visit to a very small high school in Premont, Texas, a small town you’ve never heard of. A bit of background:

In the spring of 2012, the state of Texas was threatening to shut the Premont School District because of financial mismanagement and academic failure. As a result, an energetic new superintendent, Ernest Singleton, decided to suspend all high school sports, including football.

This saved the small district a lot of cash. Predictably, it also produced an educational miracle, a common occurrence in the true-believing nation of Feelgoodistan.

After high school sports were axed, the start of the last school year seemed very quiet at Premont High, student population 282. Soon, though, the miracles started, as they so routinely do when people like Ripley type pleasing novels about public schools:
RIPLEY (10/13): But there was an upside to the quiet. “The first 12 weeks of school were the most peaceful beginning weeks I’ve ever witnessed at a high school,” [Superintendent] Singleton says. “It was calm. There was a level of energy devoted to planning and lessons, to after-school tutoring. I saw such a difference.”

[Premont High’s quarterback] missed the adrenaline rush of running out onto the field and the sense of purpose he got from the sport. But he began playing flag football for a club team on the weekends, and he admitted to one advantage during the week: “It did make you focus. There was just all this extra time. You never got behind on your work.”

That first semester, 80 percent of the students passed their classes, compared with 50 percent the previous fall. About 160 people attended parent-teacher night, compared with six the year before. Principal Ruiz was so excited that he went out and took pictures of the parking lot, jammed with cars. Through some combination of new leadership, the threat of closure, and a renewed emphasis on academics, Premont’s culture changed. “There’s been a definite decline in misbehavior,” says Desiree Valdez, who teaches speech, theater, and creative writing at Premont. “I’m struggling to recall a fight. Before, it was one every couple of weeks.”

Suspending sports was only part of the equation, but Singleton believes it was crucial. He used the savings to give teachers raises. Meanwhile, communities throughout Texas, alarmed by the cancellation of football, raised $400,000 for Premont via fund-raisers and donations—money that Singleton put toward renovating the science labs.

No one knew whether the state would make good on its threat to shut the district down. But for the first time in many years, Premont had a healthy operating balance and no debt. This past spring, the school brought back baseball, track, and tennis, with the caveat that the teams could participate in just one travel tournament a season. “Learning is going on in 99 percent of the classrooms now,” Coach Russell told me, “compared to 2 percent before.”
We’ve been reading portraits like this since the 1960s. People like Ripley produce these profiles in much the way other folk breathe.

How miraculous! Before, learning was occurring in only two percent of Premont High classrooms! Now that the football team is gone, the number has jumped all the way to 99 percent!

Who believes stories like that? Almost surely, Premont High doesn’t have enough classrooms for those figures to make literal sense. And of course, Ripley has no objective data from which she could derive a non-anecdotal assessment.

But how good it feels to read this tale about The Little High School That Did! We’ve been reading these tales our whole adult life. Consider the version of this tale we once read on the front page of the Washington Post.

The piece appeared in February 2006. Across the top of the Post’s front page, Jay Mathews, a major education writer, profiled a low-scoring elementary school which had suddenly turned things around.

Bannered across the top of page one, the story started like this:
MATHEWS (2/2/06): A Study in Pride, Progress;
Alexandria School Works Hard to Erase Academic Blot

News of the latest state test results blew softly through the remodeled halls of Maury Elementary School in June like a welcome breeze. Reports were that fifth-graders at Maury, the lowest-scoring school in Alexandria, had done much better on the writing test.

It was good to hear, but it would take more than a favorable rumor to boost the reputation of the little red-brick school on Russell Road and remove its "needs improvement" label, imposed by the federal No Child Left Behind law.
A favorable rumor about improved scores had spread through this low-scoring school. (In paragraph one, that “rumor” was described as “news.” Whatever!)

Mathews told the familiar story in slow, dramatic fashion. An energetic new principal had come to Maury. Would her efforts succeed?

Eventually, readers got the uplifting news. This passage explains the photos of beaming parents and children we saw at the top of page one:
MATHEWS: A new round of Virginia Standards of Learning tests were given in the spring of 2005. Those were the scores being examined by the state.

"There are many factors and calculations that have to be made to help with the final determination of AYP," said Julie Grimes, spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Education.

During a recent interview in his office, Dawson leafed through copies of the materials he sent to Richmond and noted both the high and the low spots. Perhaps the best news was Maury's jump in [reading] scores among third- and fifth-graders. The percentage of children passing the test shot up from just over 50 percent to 92 percent.

Dawson said he knew that information had been greeted with whoops of joy at Maury, but he tried to remain cool and objective, not unlike certain "Star Trek" characters. "Not to sound like Data or Mr. Spock," he said, "but I am not supposed to be emotionally involved."
“Whoops of joy” had greeted this news at the (formerly) low-scoring school. Ninety-two percent of Maury students had passed the state reading test! This explained why Maury was spread across the top of page one, celebrated as “a study in pride, progress.”

Ripley writes a variant of this ur-story in the current Atlantic. Unfortunately, when Mathews wrote this uplifting tale, his uplifting data were wrong.

Here at The Howler, we don’t live in Typewhatfeelsgoodistan. Long ago, teaching in Baltimore’s schools, we learned that a serious person has to be skeptical about these feel-good stories.

In the case of Maury Elementary, we checked the data and discovered a scam—a major, scandalous statewide scam that the Washington Post proceeded to hide. But make no mistake about a few basic facts:

At that time, only two grades were being tested in Virginia elementary schools, third grade and fifth. And uh-oh! At the third-grade level, Maury Elementary actually had the second lowest passing rate in the entire state of Virginia on that year’s reading test!

That reported 92 percent passing rate was an artifact of that remarkable statewide scam. In fact, Maury was still a very low-scoring school. Simply put, the Washington Post had been taken in by a statewide, state-run scam.

That was 2006. Seven years later, there is the very inexperienced Ripley writing the same familiar tale about a small high school in Texas. And there is the storied Atlantic, printing this gong-show journo porn under those silly headings.

No, Virginia and also Nebraska: Almost surely, the United States doesn’t “lag in international education rankings” because we “routinely spend more tax dollars per high-school athlete than per high-school math student.”

It may well be that American schools invest too much in high school athletics. (Or not.) But that doesn’t explain why we lag in those rankings, to the extent that we do.

We hope it’s true that Premont High is developing a stronger academic culture. For ourselves, we wouldn’t assume that this is true just because The Superintendent Said.

We assume that Superintendent Singleton is busting his hump, trying to improve a district which had apparently been poorly run for a fairly long time. But only a fool would offer silly statistical claims which suggest that performance went through the roof from one school year to the next.

Only a fool—or a music man! Which fits Ripley best?

Ripley’s piece in the current Atlantic is fairly dumb all the way down. People like Ripley write that crap even as they pretend to “tell all” about world education.

Here is a genuine miracle story:

As recently as 2010, Ripley was still avoiding education, seeing it as a dull topic. Three years later, she has been anointed by U.S. elites as an authority on the whole world’s public schools!

Why would U.S. elites do that? And does Ripley novelize her high-profile book the same way she does down in Premont?

Next: Ripley on Ravitch and Rhee

Background reading: In January 2012, the New York Times profiled the struggling Premont schools. To read that discussion, click here.

In February and March of 2006, we spent a lot of time on that statewide scam in Virginia. For our interview with the head the state's school board, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/23/06, with links to previous work.

Two columns diverged on the Times op-ed page!


Foo-foo piddle versus existential cultural threat: We were struck by two columns in today’s New York Times.

One column was written by Anna Sauerbrey, a guest contributor from across the waters. It sits beneath a solid black graphic which features a stick figure and this one word: FARFROMDUDEN.

The headlines on Sauerbrey’s column say this. We’re sure her question matters:

How Do You Say ‘Blog’ in German?
Why Europeans should embrace linguistic cosmopolitanism.

Should Europeans embrace linguistic cosmopolitanism? Offhand, we’d have to say we’re farfrombeingsure. Nor did we read this particular column, even though Sauerbrey is an editor for the opinion page of the daily German newspaper Der Tagesspiegel.

Perhaps the column is very significant. It struck us as the kind of foo-foo fiddle-faddle the New York Times likes to wave about, messaging readers that they are cosmopolitan and rather sharp.

As a general rule, Times readers don’t strike us as cosmopolitan or as especially sharp. Beyond that, they live in a country whose intellectual culture is utterly, crazily failing.

Nicholas Kristof writes today about that ongoing implosion. His column appears right next to the one about the FARFROMDUDEN.

This is the way Kristof starts, headline included:
KRISTOF (9/26/13): Suffocating Echo Chamber

When Senator Ted Cruz of La Mancha jumped on his trusty steed and charged the windmills, he explained: “Everyone in America knows Obamacare is destroying the economy.” He added that accepting the Affordable Care Act would be like appeasing the Nazis.

Cruz is a smart man, and maybe this is just disingenuous demagoguery. But there’s a scarier possibility: After spending too much time in the Republican echo chamber, he may believe what he says.

In the 1990s, as conservative talk radio spread across America, liberals felt victimized. But, in retrospect, the rise of talk radio, Fox News Channel and right-wing Web sites may have done greatest harm to conservatives themselves.

The right-wing echo chamber breeds extremism, intimidates Republican moderates and misleads people into thinking that their worldview is broadly shared.
We agree that “the right-wing echo chamber” is bad for conservatives and other living things. But uh-oh! Later in his column, Kristof dared to say this:
KRISTOF: Of course, the left has long had its own version of this problem as well. After Richard Nixon’s 1972 landslide re-election, Pauline Kael of The New Yorker famously said she was mystified because she knew only one person who had voted for Nixon. MSNBC and The Huffington Post have become cocoons for liberals, just as Fox News is for conservatives.

Both Fox News and MSNBC rely more on punditry than on reporting from the field, and I remember once early in the Iraq war when I was with American troops watching on Fox News Channel as blowhards in the studio claimed that Iraqis were welcoming us with flowers. We watched, stunned, wondering what war the network was covering.

Research suggests that the echo chamber effect is disproportionately a problem on the right, leading inhabitants to perceive a warped reality...
Needless to say, complaints have flooded the pundit in comments. How could he think that similar problems might exist on the left at all?

We were struck by the contrast between these two columns. The one column seemed highly foo-foo, like a fair amount of material in the Times. Just check out this piece in today’s Fashion & Style section: “New Beauty Goal: Plumper Cheeks.”

Not that there’s anything wrong with them!

Kristof’s column struck as a bit of a polar opposite. Our nation is imploding under the weight of the tribal lunacy he is discussing. As we thought about his column, we were struck by how primitive a first pass at this problem Kristof is making today.

By now, how is it possible that some version of this column hasn’t appeared at least 300 times? Why hasn’t a lengthy discussion of this problem already taken place on the Times op-ed page?

We may build next week’s reports around this primitive Kristof column. For today, if you seek amusement, just review the comments to Kristof’s piece.

Note how many liberals are sure, so sure, that no such problem could exist over here in Our Own Perfect Tribe. Could suffocation in echo chambers explain reactions like that?

What people think of Obamacare!


Familiar strange reporting on the Northwestern Arkansas 9: What the heck do we the people think of Obamacare?

The New York Times decided to take a national survey. This morning, Martin and Kopicki report the results.

We balked at one of their findings:
MARTIN AND KOPICKI (9/26/13): [T]here is little doubt that the president is being hurt by questions over his health overhaul. Only one in five Americans say they expect to be positively affected by the law.
Frankly, we were puzzled. How many Americans should expect to be positively affected by the law?

Thirty million people may get insurance, but that is less than ten percent of the population. Others may be positively affected in other ways—parents with kids in their twenties, let’s say. But how many people is that?

All in all, we weren’t sure why Martin and Kopicki reacted that way to that result. But we were really struck when the pair set out to talk to the rube in the street.

As we continued reading, they spoke to one fellow about a possible government shutdown. We were struck by the newspaper's skill at finding the average American:
MARTIN AND KOPICKI: A plurality say they would blame Congressional Republicans if a shutdown occurred.

“It’s bad on both sides,” said Gerald Muller, 86, an independent from Austin, Tex. “President Obama is not checking with experts. He’s a man who has been working alone and he’s isolated himself and now he has no one to turn to, or he won’t turn to them. He has a lot of learning to do, in my opinion. And the Republicans have their own agenda. They are kind of stubborn and don’t seem willing to compromise.”
Gerald Muller, 86, is the average man in the street. So was the next interviewee, another independent:
MARTIN AND KOPICKI: A particularly worrisome sign for Republicans seeking election next year: Even those Americans who live in Republican-held Congressional districts are split about whether the health care law should be upheld and improved, or defunded.

“I feel that once the law is passed it should not be revisited unless there is a major uproar by the entire population,” said Jack Burns, 78, an independent who lives in a Republican district in Houston. “I did not see that. Disagreement seemed localized to specific political views and to individual groups that were affected, such as the A.M.A.”
Burns, a 78-year-old Houstonian, balanced off Muller, an 86-year-old from Austin. By now, we were wondering how the Times had managed to find this many average people. Rapidly scanning back up the page, we completed the rule of three:
MARTIN AND KOPICKI: While Mr. Obama’s ratings sag, he can take some solace in the standing of the Republican opposition in Congress. Nearly three-quarters of Americans disapprove of Congressional Republicans. More of the public supports Mr. Obama than Republicans to make the right decisions on the deficit, health care and the economy.

“I would blame the Republicans for a shutdown,” said Barbara Nemeth, 70, an independent in Port Richey, Fla. “It’s not their job to stalemate the government. It’s their job to work cooperatively and compromise. That has been traditionally the American democratic way. They are acting like a bunch of overgrown, spoiled brats.”
At 70, Nemeth was the kid in the group. Presumably, she was in Florida because that’s where the boys are.

We were struck by the advanced ages of this particular focus group. But then, the classic interview with the rube in the street is a somewhat peculiar reporting convention, no matter who gets stopped and asked.

Yesterday morning, the Times went whole hog on the practice. For its lead story in the National section, the paper journeyed to “northwestern Arkansas” to discover what average people thought about a possible government shutdown.

“In this heavily Republican corner of the state, whether in the town square a mile from Walmart’s headquarters or in nearby blue-collar or middle-class towns like Decatur, Gravette or Siloam Springs,” Manny Fernandez recorded the views of these average people:
Average people interviewed for yesterday's New York Times
Johnny Alfrey, 67, who spoke with a shrug as he stood next to his motorcycle in Decatur
Debbie Casto, 53, a junior high school teacher and coach who lives near Bentonville in Rogers
Steve Cook, 46, a conservative who is not necessarily a Republican but not necessarily a Democrat
Mr. Cook’s friend sitting next to him on the bench
Jerry Hunnicutt, 67, a retired supervisor at a snack-food plant who lives near Bentonville in Bella Vista with his wife, Carolyn, 71
Robert Walker, 66, a friend of Alfrey
Donna Carrell, 47, an emergency services dispatcher
A gray-haired man sitting at a restaurant’s sidewalk table at the edge of the square
The whole top half of page A17 was consumed by four large photographs which showed six of these people. Not included: the gray-haired man who sat at the edge of the square!

This is a very familiar type of reporting. That said, what are we supposed to learn from this type of feature? At the start of his report, Fernandez shared his first set of findings:
FERNANDEZ (9/25/13): The apocalypse may or may not be looming in Washington in the form of a possible government shutdown or debt default.

But 1,200 miles away in northwestern Arkansas, people seem to have their doubts that something momentous is at hand...

“Wolf’s been called so much,” Johnny Alfrey, 67, said with a shrug as he stood next to his motorcycle in Decatur, just west of here. “I don’t think they’ll shut it down. But they won’t get anything solved, that’s what I think.”

People do have strong feelings about some of the issues, most significantly an almost universal suspicion of the Affordable Care Act. But in a conservative district that has sent Republicans to Congress every year since 1967, people seem to see the current turmoil as the new normal of Washington rather than a seminal political moment likely to affect their own lives. And if Republican legislators could be overplaying their hand by pushing their case against Obamacare to the outer limits, there is not much sign of that in the reactions here.
Are Republican legislators overplaying their hand by pushing their case against Obamacare to the outer limits?

“There is not much sign of that in the reactions here,” Fernandez reported, referring to things he’d been told by nine people, two of whom he couldn’t seem to name.

Who knows? With Kitty Bennett “contributing research,” it may be that more than nine people were consulted for this report. But we're always a little bit puzzled. What are we supposed to learn from this familiar type of reporting?

Yesterday’s photo-festooned report from Arkansas topped the New York Times National section. What were we supposed to learn from the things nine people said?

AMANDA RIPLEY’S BELIEVE IT BY LAW: You might almost think you’re getting conned!


Part 4—“Miracle,” Ripley said: Amanda Ripley’s The Smartest Kids in the World is an interesting, highly readable book.

That said, an instructive moment occurs on page 126. It’s part of a two-page sub-section bearing this headline: “The Polish miracle.”

In fairness, it’s important to know what Ripley means when she refers to this particular “miracle.” She doesn’t say that Poland has miraculously become one of the world’s highest-scoring countries, although every reviewer in the country seems to think that’s what she said.

(Toch and White in the Washington Monthly: “Enter journalist Amanda Ripley [who] follows three American exchange students to high schools in three of the top-scoring PISA countries: Finland, South Korea, and Poland.” Quite plainly, Poland is not “one of the top-scoring PISA countries.” Nor does Ripley ever quite say that.)

According to Ripley, Poland’s miracle is different—it’s a miracle of rapid improvement. This is the instructive passage which helps readers accept Ripley’s uplifting, novelized portrait:
RIPLEY (page 127): Like the United States, Poland was a big country whose people distrusted the centralized government. Yet something remarkable had happened in Poland. From 2000 to 2006, the average reading score of Polish 15-year-olds shot up by 29 points on the PISA exam. It was as if Polish kids had somehow packed almost three-fourths of a school year of extra learning into their brains. In less than a decade, they had gone from below average for the developed world to above. Over the same period, U.S. scores had remained flat.
“Like the United States, Poland was a big country whose people distrusted the centralized government?”

For the record, Poland is “a big country” of 38 million people. In Ripley’s account, it is a “homogeneous place with few immigrants or racial minorities.”

By way of contrast, the United States is “a big country” of 315 million people! With that rather facile comparison, Ripley helps us gasp at the way the one big country improved while its near-twin didn’t.

That’s a fairly silly construction. But that isn’t the passage we have in mind.

In the paragraph we have quoted, we were struck by what Ripley said about the “miracle” of Poland’s improvement on the PISA, the only international testing program whose scores she discusses in her book.

Wow! “From 2000 to 2006, the average reading score of Polish 15-year-olds shot up by 29 points on the PISA exam,” Ripley writes. She says that represents “almost three-fourths of a school year of extra learning,” encouraging us to gasp at “the Polish miracle.”

In fact, that was a large score gain—from a very low starting point, it should be said. But we couldn’t help noting Ripley’s rather peculiar time frame.

Ripley told us how much Poland improved from 2000 to 2006. But how odd! The most recent PISA test results come from 2009. Why didn’t Ripley give us the full enjoyment which would inevitably result from making a full nine-year comparison?

Perhaps you can guess at the answer! These are Poland’s average scores in reading over that nine-year period:
Average score, Poland, PISA reading test
2000: 479
2003: 497
2006: 508
2009: 500
Oops! The six-year gain was 29 points—but the nine-year gain was 21! With a “miracle” to sell, Ripley disappeared the drop in scores on the most recent test.

(American students also averaged 500 on the 2009 reading test.)

What happened to “the Polish miracle” after 2006? Why did Poland’s average score take that eight-point drop? We have no way to answer that question, but data sometimes jump around that way. Some possible explanations:

The average score of 508 in 2006 may have been misleadingly high, the result of some sort of sampling imperfection. On the other hand, the average score from 2009 may be misleadingly low, for the same sort of reason. (Data from the 2012 PISA haven’t been released yet.)

Alas! There’s no such thing as perfect data, even from the best testing programs. That’s why it’s generally better to look at data from three testing programs where this can be done, instead of restricting ourselves to one source of data, as Ripley does in her somewhat suspiciously slanted book.

Why has Poland’s average reading score jumped around so much? According to Ripley, that first big jump, in 2003, largely resulted from a change in basic procedure. After the 2000 testing, Poland delayed “tracking” students into vocational schools until they were 16. All students stayed in “academic” programs until after they’d taken the PISA.

Does that explain that first big jump in scores, as Ripley seems to think? Let’s assume it does. Subsequent to that one large jump, Poland recorded exactly three points in improvement from 2003 to 2009, years which followed this basic procedural change.

In that same six-year period, the American average score in reading went up by five points, from 495 to 500. But because of the time frame Ripley selected, we are told that Poland is performing a “miracle” of ascent.

Can we talk? Neither the United States nor Poland is producing any “miracles” at the present time. In fairness, miraculous Finland isn’t producing any “miracles” either.

That said, education writers have always loved the con the “miracle” metaphor permits. A bit later, still discussing Poland’s ascent, Ripley seems to play us again.

In this passage, Ripley describes the “shocking” gains Poland achieved on the PISA between 2000 and 2003. This is the passage we weren’t able to quote in full in yesterday’s post:
RIPLEY (page 135): [I]n 2000, Polish fifteen-year-olds took the PISA...

No one in Poland had expected to lead the world, but the results were disheartening all the same. Polish fifteen-year-olds ranked twenty-first in reading and twentieth in math, below the United States and below the average for the developed world. Once again, Poland had found itself on the outside looking in. If the vocational students were evaluated separately, the inequities were startling. Over two-thirds scored in the rock-bottom lowest literacy level.

Three years later, a new group of Polish fifteen-year olds took PISA. They had spent their elementary years in the old system but were by then attending the new gymnasia schools. Unlike their predecessors, they had not yet been tracked. They were the experimental group.

The results were shocking—again. Poland, the punch line for so many jokes around the world, ranked thirteenth in reading and eighteenth in math, just above the United States in both subjects. In the space of three years, Poland had caught up with the developed world. (Ripley’s italics)
In this passage, we’re being sold a thrilling story. But look how little respect Ripley seems to have for American readers!

As readers, we’re supposed to find it “shocking” when Poland ascends from twentieth place in the world in math all the way up to eighteenth! In fact, the PISA Data Explorer seems to show that Poland ranked 21st in the world in math in both those years. (Click here, then continue clicking.) But why would a reader find it “shocking” to see a country’s ranking change by two places over a span of three years?

In fact, Poland did make a large gain in average score in math from 2000 to 2003—a gain of some twenty points. Again, Ripley largely attributes the gains in 2003 to the country’s one-time change in “tracking” procedure.

That was a large one-time gain. But from 2003 to 2009, Poland’s average score in math went up by only five points. The average score for the United States went up by four points during that same time period.

Poland may well be doing good things in its schools as it emerges from decades under the Soviet thumb. That said, there is no obvious “miracle” of ascent transpiring there.

On the other hand, test scores have been rising rather rapidly in this country on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) once you “disaggregate” scores, as everyone knows you must. But that improvement wasn’t reported, assessed or explained in Ripley’s suspiciously slanted book.

Ripley completely skips the NAEP, which seems to show so much U.S. improvement. She also skips the TIMSS and the PIRLS, international tests which seem to paint a gloomier portrait of Poland’s ongoing performance.

Ripley asks us to gasp at Poland’s score gain in reading from 2000 to 2006. She doesn’t mention the drop in Poland’s score in 2009.

You might almost think you’re getting conned. But why would Ripley do that?

Tomorrow: Ripley, past and present

David Corn shatters a firm pundit rule!


Your Howler keeps getting results: Last night, speaking with Lawrence O’Donnell, David Corn broke a firm rule of the guild.

We take our hats off to Corn. Just look what the gentleman did:
O’DONNELL (9/24/13): Who is the best presidential tactician since LBJ? In an article today from Mother Jones, David Corn gives us his answer. The article’s entitled, “Obama is the shrewdest political tactician since LBJ.” Joining me now, David Corn.

David, I got to tell you, when I saw the piece today, I said, “Get me David Corn,” because I completely agree with you. And you now have five minutes to convince the rest of the world. Go ahead.

CORN: Well, let me say that I sort of posed that as a bit of an overstatement. But I gave the case for believing that might be so. And basically, if you look at President Barack Obama and ask yourself, who are his most bothersome foes of late? The answer would be Vladimir Putin and John Boehner, two men who probably don’t have much in common with each other, right?

But I think Barack Obama has really gotten the best of them in the last couple weeks, despite what Maureen Dowd and others in the Washington conventional wisdom circuit say.
Say what? Can David Corn do that?

Corn criticized the poisonous Dowd by name, right there on the TV machine! By all that’s holy in Hard Pundit Law, that simply isn’t done!

Corn’s timing was excellent, if about two decades late. This morning, Dowd’s column may be the worst she has ever written, and that covers a lot of ground.

Dowd has been poisonous for a long time—poisonous and inane. This morning, she started like this:
DOWD (9/25/13): The man formerly hailed as a messiah was having a bad day.

The Iranians snubbed him. The Brazilians upbraided him. Ted Cruz fauxlibustered him. And you just know that, behind the scenes, the Russians were messing with him.

At the end of a long, hard day at the United Nations, he escaped into the sweaty and freighted embrace of the Clintons, who had to explain and defend the president’s own health care plan for him at their global initiative conference/Hillary 2016 pep rally.
At least she didn't say that Obama was having a bad hair day, as she so frequently does. Still though, the bullets flew:

Obama used to be hailed as a messiah! And the Clintons are sweaty!

Bill Clinton had to explain the messiah’s health plan for him! The whole thing was a pep rally for Hill!

The inanity spread down the page as Dowd delivered scattershot barbs at everyone she dislikes. Prince Turki al-Faisal said Obama screwed up.

As we all know, if the prince speaks, his statement just has to be right!

Dowd closed with some of her brainless word-play, a long-standing cry for help. Had Corn already seen this crap when he broke Pundit Law last night?

The guild has tolerated Dowd for a very long time. She seems to be feared to the same extent that the swells once feared J. Edgar Hoover.

Corn should have spoken up long ago, perhaps when Dowd composed seven columns in which Candidate Gore held crazed discussions with his bald spot.

For decades, Dowd has been crying for help. Finally, Corn spoke her name right there on TV, where other big pundits could hear him!

The analysts stood and cheered. Frankly, that's the “Uncle Corn” the youngsters have always liked!

More from the world of bad reporting!


The New York Times and SNAP: We couldn’t help noting more bad reporting in today’s New York times.

Ron Nixon in back on the food assistance beat. Today, his report starts like this:
NIXON (9/25/13): House leaders on Tuesday said they were working with their Senate counterparts toward a new five-year farm bill, just days after the House pushed through a bill that would slash billions of dollars from the food stamp program.


The farm bill, a 1,000-page measure that sets the nation’s food and nutrition policy, was formerly a bipartisan piece of legislation. But it has been mired in partisan gridlock for nearly two years. Most of the acrimony has been over cuts to the food stamp program, formally known as the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program.

House Republicans, led by the majority leader, Eric Cantor of Virginia, have pushed for nearly $40 billion in cuts to the program, a move opposed by President Obama and Congressional Democrats.
This is a classic example of “the journalism of big numbers.”

First, we’re told that the House passed a bill “that would slash billions of dollars from the food stamp program.” Frankly, that doesn’t sound good.

Later, Nixon gets more precise. The bill would cut “nearly $40 billion” from the food assistance program.

That sounds like a very large number! But how large is it? At no point does Nixon provide a number with which those billions cane be compared.

How big is that cut on a percentage basis? Nixon never says.

We know of no reason to cut or slash food assistance at all. We also know of no reason to report large numbers this way.

AMANDA RIPLEY’S BELIEF IT BY LAW: Admittedly, a talented writer!


Part 3—With a weak intellectual culture: This past Sunday, the Washington Post gave major play to Amanda Ripley’s new book, The Smartest Kids in the World.

A cynic would say it’s easy to see why the Post did that. Jay Mathews’ review of the book topped the front page of the Post’s Outlook section. Mathews, a nationally known education writer, drew a conclusion from Ripley’s new book which extended a treasured Post theme.

(“The most consistent U.S. failing Ripley discovers is our way of selecting and training teachers.”)

That’s what a cynic would say about the high profile this book received from the Post. On the other hand, a fair-minded person might compliment Mathews on the somewhat murky way he ended his review of the book.

The PISA is the international testing program around whose findings Ripley builds her book. Mathews ends like this:
MATHEWS (9/22/13): Ripley seems to realize toward the end that she put too much faith in the PISA as a measure of creativity and critical thinking, a controversial issue among experts. Upbeat statements about the test tend to disappear later in the book. What the PISA is measuring is probably not creativity. If you believe the exam does capture that elusive quality, then you have to accept the notion that it can be pounded into students as is done in South Korea.

One thing the PISA almost certainly assesses is how much students know. In countries that want them to learn about the world, students get higher scores. They need that command of content, as educators put it, or they won’t have anything to be creative about.

Ripley rightly concludes that we need “a serious intellectual culture in schools.” But watch cable news, eavesdrop in a student cafeteria or attend a local PTA meeting, and you will see that such a culture is something that so far doesn’t interest us much.
We’ll agree with Ripley, a hundred times over. This country would gain from “a serious intellectual culture in schools.” (Our schools would also gain from cultures of enjoyment and exploration.)

As he rolls his eyes at cable news and the rest, Mathews seems to suggest, at the end of his piece, that our whole country lacks “a serious intellectual culture.” Before he aims this barb at American students and PTA members, we would suggest that the gent try healing himself—and the talented Ripley too.

Early on in his review, Mathews describes Ripley as “a talented writer.” We’ll agree with that assessment, though only up to a point. Ripley’s book is very readable, loaded as it is with human interest about a very small number of exchange students and their teachers and principals.

There are favorable things to be said about Ripley’s book. But from what “intellectual culture” has this book, and Mathews’ review of it, sprung?

Consider the second page of The Smartest Kids in the World, where Ripley lays out her basic framework. Why did she decide to write a book about education, a topic she rather snootily says she once found, “well, kind of soft?”

(Did you see the talented writing there?)

Why did Ripley change her mind? What made her decide to write a book about education? The talented writer posts a chart, which she describes in this manner:
RIPLEY (page 2): Then one day I saw this chart, and it blew my mind.

The United States might have stayed flat over time, but that was the exception, it turned out. Look at Finland! It had rocketed from the bottom to the top of the world, without pausing for breath. And what was going on in Norway, right next door, which seemed to be slip sliding into the abyss, despite having virtually no child poverty? And there was Canada, careening up from mediocrity to the heights of Japan. If education was a function of culture, could culture change that dramatically—that fast?
This is our introduction to miraculous Finland, one of the three countries Ripley explores in her book. According to Ripley, the chart which blew her mind shows the small but miraculous Nordic nation “rocket[ing] from the bottom to the top of the world, without pausing for breath.”

The chart to which Ripley refers appears next door, on page 3. But uh-oh! Quite plainly, it doesn’t show miraculous Finland doing any such thing.

Anyone who looks at this chart can see that Ripley’s description of Finland’s rocket trip is grossly, dramatically wrong. Within what sort of “intellectual culture” do such errors reside?

The chart to which Ripley refers is, within the context of her book, largely useless. Ripley’s caption for the chart reads as follows:
RIPLEY (page 3): Dance of the Nations: Over a half century, different countries gave eighteen different tests to their children. Economists Ludger Woessmann and Eric Hanushek projected kids’ performance onto a common measuring stick. The results suggest that education levels can—and do—change dramatically over time, for better and worse.
We don’t mean this as a criticism of Woessmann and Hanushek’s work. Their chart may well make perfect sense, once it has been explained.

But within the context of Ripley’s book, the chart is never explained. For that reason, it is basically impossible to interpret. On its vertical axis, it shows a scale of scores from those “eighteen different tests” which extends from 460 up to 560. Recorded scores for the fifteen nations extend from a low score of roughly 470 to a high of perhaps 555.

Along its horizontal axis, the time frame of the chart extends from 1965 to 2009.

At no point does Ripley explain what those test scores mean. More precisely, she makes no attempt to explain how large the observable score gains actually are in practice. If a nation moves from a score of 480 to a score of 520, does that correspond to a large change in learning and academic skill? Or is such a score change just a minor blip?

Without some attempt to answer those questions, we can see nations moving up and down on the “test score” scale, but we have no idea if the changes involved are significant. Similarly, we have no way to estimate the size of the gaps in learning and achievement between the fifteen nations.

More significant is what we plainly can see concerning miraculous Finland.

According to Ripley, miraculous Finland “rocketed from the bottom to the top of the world, without pausing for breath.” It was this type of miraculous change which created Ripley’s interest in talentedly writing about education!

But uh-oh! On this largely unexplained chart, Finland is never anywhere near the bottom of the world. On a murkily undifferentiated curve, Finland is shown in the 1960s and 1970s scoring at levels which few other countries on the chart have achieved even today.

Uh-oh! If this chart means what it seems to mean, Finland seems to have been at the top of the world, among these countries, from the earliest days of national and international testing. According to Ripley’s chart, only Japan and Belgium outscored Finland back in the 1960s. Only Japan outscored Finland in the 1970s.

Finland’s scores have improved over time, from roughly 510 in those earlier decades to roughly 545 today. But there is no way of knowing how much extra learning is represented by that type of score gain. And Ripley’s basic account of Finland’s history seems to be flagrantly wrong:

Sorry, Chaarli! If we go by this largely unexplained chart, Finland didn’t rocket from the bottom of the world to the top. On page two of her talented book, Ripley’s basic account of her interest in education seems to be flagrantly wrong.

What kind of “intellectual culture” guides the writing of such a book? A book where an obvious, foundational error appears right on page two? We’re not sure, but we were similarly puzzled when Ripley explained why Poland was chosen as one of the countries with the world’s “smartest kids.”

In fairness, Ripley never quite says that Poland is a high-scoring country. She frequently makes it sound that way, and every reviewer in the land seems to think that’s what she said. Are book reviewers ever required to take a reading test?

Ripley sometimes makes it sound like Poland's a high-scoring nation. But when she gets precise with her language, she describes Poland as “a country on the ascent,” an example of “the metamorphosis model” (page 24).

To what extent is or was Poland “a country on the ascent?” When Ripley describes Poland’s score gains, she focuses on the jumps that occurred the first two times Poland took part in the PISA.

With apologies, we have to give you a slightly truncated version of her account. (Never a lender be!) We expect to be able to fill in this account tomorrow:
RIPLEY (page 135): [I]n 2000, Polish fifteen-year-olds took the PISA...Polish fifteen-year-olds ranked twenty-first in reading and twentieth in math, below the United States and below the average for the developed world. Two-thirds scored in the rock-bottom lowest literacy level. Three years later, in 2003, a new group of Polish fifteen-year olds took the PISA again...Poland, the punch line for so many jokes around the world, ranked thirteenth in reading and eighteenth in math, just above the United States in both subjects.
In full context, those gains are treated as an example of what it means to be “a country on the ascent.” That said, even the least observant reader may notice something slightly odd about this thrilling account.

Moving from twenty-first to thirteenth in reading seems like a very good gain in the space of three years. But according to Ripley, Poland only moved from twentieth to eighteenth in math during this same period.

As a reader, we were puzzled by that passage. Were we supposed to be blown away by that degree of success—by the fact that Poland jumped all the way from 20th place to 18th? Was Ripley hoping her readers just wouldn’t notice the meagerness of that ascent?

Using the PISA Data Explorer provided by the NCES (and cited by Ripley), we decided to double-check Poland’s ascent during this period. We don’t know what measure Ripley is using when she describes Poland’s international rankings in math in 2000 and 2003. But if we’re going by average scores, Poland went from 21st out of 28 OECD countries in math in 2000 to a tie for 21st out of 29 OECD countries in 2003, as you can see for yourself by using the Data Explorer.

Poland did gain ground on the OECD average in math during that period. But, again with apologies, that passage on page 135 represents Ripley’s attempt to explain why Poland, “a country on the ascent,” is one of only three countries on which she chose to focus in this high-profile book.

We’ll be candid—Poland’s gains on the PISA don’t seem ginormous to us, especially if you read closely enough to see that Ripley is only claiming a very slight ascent in ranking in math in her basic presentation. And not only that! In this confusing passage from his review, Mathews refers to a situation which may make matters worse:
MATHEWS: The deeper Ripley goes, however, the less certain she is of the answer to our school problem. Teachers in the high-scoring countries give their students more rigorous assignments and get more support from parents, principals and students for demanding work than teachers do in the United States. Ripley embraces that key concept. But some of those nations share the American habit of thinking that not all students need rigor.

The PISA is given to 15-year-olds. Ripley cites a testing expert’s discovery that Poland gave that age group a boost by holding back pupils on their way to vocational school for an extra year of academic studies. Then, as an experiment, the PISA was given again to a sampling of those students when they were 16 or 17 and attending vocational schools. Their scores had dropped significantly. The extra year of academics had no lasting effect. Poland had an American-like gap between kids who were heading for college and those who weren’t.
In that rather murky passage, Mathews alludes to a basic change Poland made between 2000 and 2003. (In her book, Ripley explains this change with a bit more clarity, though even there, questions remain.)

Traditionally, lower-achieving Polish kids got “tracked” into vocational schools before their fifteenth year. After the disappointing PISA results of 2000, the country decided to keep those kids in more challenging academic programs for an additional year.

When Poland’s average scores rose in 2003 (if not its international rankings), did that represent a one-time reaction to this change in basic procedures? There’s no way of knowing, but Poland’s scores didn’t change a great deal between 2003 and 2009, the last year for which PISA scores are available.

Quite plainly, Poland isn’t a high-scoring nation, not even on the PISA. Beyond that, we’re not real sure why Poland is cited as “a country on the ascent,” and Ripley doesn’t really bother explaining in her 230-page book.

Given our nation’s “intellectual culture,” she seems to assume that readers will gasp when she tells us that Poland jumped from 20th place in math all the way up to 18th. (By 2009, Poland ranked 19th out of 34 OECD nations in math on the PISA.)

Let’s review:

Judging from Ripley’s chart, miraculous Finland didn’t start at the bottom of the world. A simple glance at Ripley’s chart seems to show that her statement is wrong.

Poland, a country on the ascent, only went from 20th to 18th in math in the period Ripley chose to highlight—and it achieved that gain in ranking on some undisclosed measure.

When a book is built around such claims, we can’t say we’re blown away by its “intellectual culture.” And we still must account for Ripley’s most significant decision.

Like many other nations, the United States and Poland take part in three major international testing programs—the PISA, the TIMSS and the PIRLS. No one makes these countries take part in these programs. Presumably, countries take part in the TIMSS and the PIRLS because they think the TIMSS and the PIRLS are valuable testing programs.

This causes a bit of a puzzle. The talented Ripley’s well-written book covers more than 200 pages. But a reader is never even told about the TIMSS and the PIRLS, testing programs on which American students have scored better, in recent years, than they have done on the PISA.

In an endnote, Ripley explains her decision to restrict herself to the PISA—to refer to data from one testing program when three sets of data are available. In our view, the intellectual culture displayed in this note isn’t especially high:
RIPLEY (page 258): There are other tests besides the PISA, each of which provides valuable data in its own right; for the purposes of this book, I was most interested in which countries prepared students to think, learn and thrive in the modern economy. PISA was designed with this purpose in mind. The OECD’s 1999 report, Measuring Student Knowledge and Skills, describes the difference between PISA and other international test this way...
Ripley goes on to provide a quote from that OECD report. She doesn’t explain that the PISA is a program which is developed and run by the OECD—that in this report, the OECD is describing and praising one of its own programs.

Is the PISA a better measure in some major way than the TIMSS and the PIRLS? We can’t answer that question, in part because the parameters of our “intellectual culture” are set by people like Ripley. But as a general matter, our nation displays a weak “intellectual culture,” just as Mathews suggested.

Part of that weak intellectual culture is put on display when reviewers like Mathews describe Poland as a high-scoring nation, thereby making the Standard Story told by this book seem just that much better. Meanwhile, the weak “intellectual culture” of Ripley’s book goes on display right on page 2, when she offers a weirdly bogus account of a chart which sits on page 3.

As with Mathews, so with Ripley. Her bogus account makes the Official Standard Story sound a great deal better. Miraculous Finland rose from the bottom all the way to the top!

If Ripley’s chart means what it seems to mean, Finland didn’t “start at the bottom of the world,” then shoot to the top, “without pausing for breath.” But wait a minute! If miraculous Finland didn’t do that, what got Ripley involved in education, the subject of this book?

Tomorrow, we’ll discuss past errors by Ripley and Mathews, errors which seem to keep advancing and improving the Official Establishment Line. Have you noticed that our intellectual culture is built around tightly-scripted, memorized tales? That our public discourse tends to be novels, novels all the way down?

Tomorrow: Extremely easy to con

With apologies: By tomorrow, we expect to provide a fuller chunk from page 135 about Poland’s rapid ascent.