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SUNDAY, AUGUST 15, 2010


KLMNO Sunday OPINION DANA MILBANK


school reform soulmate: George Bush


T


he Education Department kicked off its first ever “Bullying Summit” this week with a speech by Secretary Arne Duncan about


the need “to break the cycle of bullying.” But if Duncan really wants to stop the biggest bully in America’s schools right now, he’ll have to confront his boss, President Obama. In federal education policy, the president and his education secretary have been the neighborhood toughs — bullying teachers, civil rights groups, even Oba- ma’s revered community organizers. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, in now-famous remarks, said that those who claim Obama is like George W. Bush should be “drug tested.” In general, I have sympathy for Gibbs’s frustration— liberals have an annoying tendency to eat their own — and I often think Obama should be more forceful. But in education, the Bush-Obama comparison is spot on. If anything, Obama has taken the worst aspect of Bush’s No Child Left Behind education law — an obsession with testing — and amplified it. Obama has expanded the importance of stan- dardized testing to determine how much teach- ers will be paid, which educators will be fired and which schools will be closed — despite evidence that such practices are harmful. In the process, he’s offended just about all the liberals involved in or advocating for education without gaining much support from conservatives. Stunned, Obama’s erstwhile allies have begun to push back. On July 26, a coalition of civil rights groups, including the NAACP and the National Urban League, called for an end to “federally pre- scribed methodologies that have little or no evi- dentiary support” and that use minority commu- nities as “testing grounds.” The next day, the American Federation of


Teachers issued a statement saying the adminis- tration was encouraging “bad teacher evaluation systems.” And the day after that, a coalition of community organizing groups scolded the ad- ministration for continuing “rigid, top-down so- lutions that are not supported by research.” Privately, Obama’s one-time friends are far more caustic. They talk of an “elitist” and “arro- gant” administration embracing an education policy produced by the Center for American Progress with too little regard for what happens in practice. Obama’s response to his supporters: Buzz off.


On July 29, he gave a speech to the Urban League and said his critics are “comfortable with the sta- tus quo” and have “a general resistance to change.” But it’s not just ossified interest groups that oppose the testing. When winners of the state Teachers of the Year awards came to town this spring, Valerie Strauss, author of The Post’s An- swer Sheet blog, asked several of them for their thoughts on education policy. All complained about using test scores to rate teachers. There’s nothing wrong with testing, but when you use tests to determine pay and job security, you inevitably induce teachers to turn children into test-taking automatons, not the creative thinkers that have been the most valuable prod- uct of American schools. Test obsession won’t help the bad schools, and it will wreck the good ones. “The curriculum will be narrowed even more than under George W. Bush’s No Child Left Be- hind,” New York University education professor Diane Ravitch, an education official in George H.W. Bush’s administration, wrote of Obama’s education policy in a piece for the Huffington Post. “There will be even less time available for the arts, science, history, civics, foreign language, even physical education. Teachers will teach to the test. There will be more cheating, more gam- ing the system.” The tests, she said, are “simply not adequate” to separate good teachers and schools from bad. Consider the reliability of standardized tests in


New York. In New York City schools, 82 percent of students were at grade level in math last year; this year, only 54 percent are at grade level, after administrators revised their artificially low stan- dards for proficiency. Daniel Koretz, a Harvard professor and au-


thority on testing, has concluded that high- stakes testing causes “substantial distortions of practice” in the classroom “and inflation of test scores.” In an article published this summer, he writes: “The seriousness of this problem is hard to overstate. When scores are inflated, many of the most important conclusions people base on them will be wrong, and students — and some- times teachers — will suffer as a result.” But try telling all this to the Obama adminis-


tration. “There’s an attitude that if you aren’t with us, you are against us — and therefore against children and reform,” a Democratic friend of mine who runs an education advocacy group in Washington told me. The administra- tion, she said, “tries to bully and condemn any opposition, even if it is from groups that should be their allies.” If Obama’s interested, she’s available to speak at the next bullying summit.


danamilbank@washpost.com Obama’s TOPIC A What can Democrats do to counter the bad economic news?


MATTHEW DOWD Political analyst for ABC News; chief strategist for George W. Bush’s 2004 presidential campaign


With the 60-day sprint to Election Day fast approaching, perceptions of the economy are basically locked in. It is bad. And since Democrats hold all levers of power in Washington, they own this dismal situation. Democrats should say an early goodbye to some of their colleagues — and begin praying that the economy recovers in 2011, or they may be seeing a one-term president. But to manage their campaign communications in this environment, they should:  Acknowledge and meet voters where they are and not where candidates want them to be. Most voters, especially swing voters, are anxious and frustrated and don’t trust the federal government. Democrats shouldn’t try to convince voters that they are wrong. Be empathetic and don’t attempt to put a positive spin on a bad situation. Once voters think you understand their feelings and situation, point to some hope on the horizon.  Don’t deflect responsibility by blaming previous administrations for the economic mess. While it may be true in some regards that Democrats don’t deserve all the blame, voters want to see accountability — not excuses. Admit that you may not have always listened or that you have made some mistakes, but say that you’re learning and doing all you can. Americans want authenticity first and foremost. They don’t expect perfection from leaders.  Take advantage of Republican stumbles. Voters are not yet becoming Republicans; they are upset that no one in Washington seems to be listening to them. Remember, polls show that the only people voters dislike more than congressional Democrats are congressional Republicans.


DOUGLAS E. SCHOEN Democratic pollster and author


The recent discouraging economic news is a


watershed for the Obama administration — at least as far as the midterms are concerned. It discredits one of the administration’s few remaining positive arguments: that the administration ushered in an economic recovery that otherwise might not have occurred. In the absence of encouraging economic news, Democrats have one avenue left: to attack, and vigorously. Polling last week shows compellingly that despite the Republican lead on the generic congressional vote — which is close to five or six points, according to the Real Clear Politics averages — Republicans are as unpopular as Democrats, if not more so. Further, George W. Bush still gets more blame than the Democrats do for the economic problems. Consequently, you can expect more of what the president has begun doing — going negative. The only choice left for Democrats is to call Republicans the “party of no” and the party with no policy ideas; to brand them as extremists and out of the mainstream; and to blame Bush for America’s problems. It’s not a great strategy, and it is unlikely to succeed. But it is the only strategy left for an increasingly unpopular president and an increasingly unpopular Democratic Party.


MIKE LUX


Co-founder and chief executive of Progressive Strategies; co-founder of OpenLeft.com; special assistant to President Bill Clinton for public liaison from 1993 to 1995


America is not going to recover quickly


from the devastation that’s been wrought, and middle-class folks are understandably angry. But Democrats can still win this year by being 100 percent clear whose side they are on: Throw the money-changers from the temple of our democracy and take on the corporate lobbyists who are trying to buy Congress, buy elections and feed at the public trough. We are not pro-government; we are for


government independent from special interests and strong enough to take them on. We can cut waste and reduce the deficit by taking on government contractors who rip us off for hundreds of billions of dollars. We


President Ronald Reagan did something similar in the recession-racked midterms of 1982. He held to his beliefs and carried them to the country.


DAN SCHNUR Director of the University of Southern California’s Unruh Institute of Politics; communications director for John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign


For several months, the White House messaging strategy has been based largely on the premise that it’s better to be a mile outside of hell heading out. But continuing bad economic news makes it difficult to sell even the possibility of progress to an increasingly restive electorate. The president’s strategists have undoubtedly noticed that even as voters become more despondent about the economy, the latest NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll shows that the Republican advantage appears to be shrinking on the question of preferred party control of Congress. Less distracted by the gulf oil spill and perhaps energized by more combative language on immigration and financial reform, Democrats have cut the GOP margin among likely voters roughly in half. If Team Obama is going to avoid huge losses in November, it must find other ways to shrink the enthusiasm gap. Part of that answer is riling up


ALAMY


should push for breaking up banks that are too big to fail and restructuring the financial system so money is invested in job creation, not speculation. We should fight for investing in infrastructure and green jobs.


ROBERT SHRUM


Democratic strategist and senior fellow at New York University’s Wagner School of Public Service


The strategy of “no” has worked for the


GOP. Their adamant opposition forced President Obama to accept a stimulus that was too small in order to quickly and convincingly reverse the downturn he inherited. As new dangers — conservative retrenchment in Europe, a slowdown in China —shadow the economy, the administration has no hope of passing another stimulus package. It would be too late, anyway, to help Democrats in November. So Democrats can go through the motions


—blame Bush, invoke poll-tested phrases such as “forward, not back” — and get pummeled on Election Day. Or they can draw a sharp dividing line based on the differing characters of the two parties. Only the president can shift the terrain of this campaign — and he can do it only with an ideological edge. He has to reframe the issues with a single,


recurring question: Who’s on your side? Who stood for health insurance that can’t be canceled when you get sick, and who stood with the insurance industry? Who fought for Wall Street reform, and who voted with the speculators? The best place to start is with the September battle over renewing the Bush tax cuts. Do we really want to borrow hundreds of billions for a giant tax cut for the very rich? If Democrats have the courage to be Democrats, they will minimize their losses and open a path to progressive ascendancy as the economy revives over the next two years.


the party faithful against the prospect of a Republican-controlled Congress, a task that President Obama has visibly warmed to in recent weeks. On Friday, he opened up a new front, criticizing Europe and blaming that continent’s financial woes for our country’s continuing difficulties. This note of


economic nationalism is bound to appeal to organized labor and other traditional Democratic constituencies. But such language will also make it harder for the president to build support for new trade agreements with South Korea, Panama and Colombia. Which, in turn, makes the prospects for economic recovery even more complicated.


DONNA BRAZILE


Author and political commentator; manager of Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign


Where the economy is in August is no


guarantee of where the economy will be in November. So this spate of bad economic news isn’t as damning for Democrats as many naysayers would like to predict. Democrats have plenty of time to get the ball turned around and rolling in the right direction before voters head to the polls. It is less important where the economy is than where it’s heading, so if Democrats can sow seeds of economic optimism over the next two months, they may reap rewards come November. The challenge is walking the line of economic stimulus without crossing into the realm of excessive deficit spending that voters see as irresponsible or handouts. Small- business legislation is Democrats’ best friend; they should make it easier to start a business or hire employees. Big business needs to do its part, too, and Democrats could help smooth the way by closing corporate loopholes that make it easier to outsource jobs. Also, Democrats should remind voters that the economic benefits of health-care reform will kick in soon, eliminating or reducing the cause of untold numbers of bankruptcies and foreclosures.


TOPIC A ONLINE: Former House speaker Newt Gingrich.


R


A11


OMBUDSMAN ANDREW ALEXANDER Brawl on the Metro: Where was the coverage?


when a large brawl broke out in the Metro system on a recent Friday night, it seemed a perfect chance to show local readers that The Post is their indispensable source for news. The fracas occurred near midnight on Aug. 6, and authorities said it involved as many as 70 peo- ple. It started at the Gallery Place Station and continued to the L’Enfant Plaza Station. There were arrests, and several people landed in the hospital. On deadline, The Post gathered enough information for a news brief in Saturday’s paper, and a short story was quickly posted online. Throughout Saturday, it was among the most-


P


viewed stories on the Web site, signaling intense reader interest. But as the day wore on, some readers grew frustrated that there was nothing more. “What, when, where, who and why?” District reader Robert W. Porter e-mailed me mid-after- noon Saturday. “For the life of me, I can’t find an answer to any of the above questions. I expect bet- ter from The Washington Post.” When a story for Sunday’s paper finally did ap-


pear, it offered little new. Promoted on the front page and tucked at the bottom of Sunday’s Metro section, it didn’t answer key questions: What caused the fighting? Were the people who were in- jured participants or bystanders? Was Metro beef- ing up security? Why such thin coverage? Much of the explana- tion is that The Post responded with too little, too late.


ost managers, from the top down, regularly remind the newsroom that coverage must have a “for and about Washington” focus. So


As is typical on weekends, only three local re-


porters were on duty that Saturday, and two of them were summer interns with other assign- ments. In years past, before staff cuts, it would have been double that. The lead role fell to Ann E. Mari- mow, a seasoned full-time reporter. But she also had been on a morning assignment and wasn’t giv- en the brawl story until she arrived in the news- room after 1 p.m. Even with others trying to locate eyewitnesses through social media Web sites, it was expecting a lot for her to produce a meaningful story in just a matter of hours. So with a local news staff of about 70 reporters,


why not call in reinforcements? Robert E. Pierre, the weekend editor for local news, said he saw no need. “It wasn’t about additional people,” he told me, noting that social media searches and an on- line appeal for witnesses had yielded little. And, he added, “the police didn’t have very much,” and what little information they disclosed was sketchy. The size of the crowd was in question, he said, and police couldn’t say how many were actu- ally brawling.


Pierre also worried about hyping a story that


involved race. Although The Post’s coverage on and after Sunday did not specify the racial make- up of those involved, many readers assumed they were black and offered racially insensitive online comments. “So ghetto,” read one. Another urged ending “all welfare benefits for parents whose lit- tle animals cause this type of mayhem.” When The Post finally produced a more sub- stantive story for Monday’s paper, Pierre believes it was given too much prominence, even though it included eyewitness descriptions of multiple


fights and bedlam as people tried to escape the pandemonium. The Post “overplayed it,” said Pierre. “It was a fight on the Metro. Kids get into fights.” The Post should always be sensitive to over-


playing stories, especially if race is involved. But the problem here was that readers last weekend couldn’t get news they desperately wanted about what police said was a massive brawl on the pub- lic transit system used daily by hundreds of thou- sands of people. The hedge against overplaying the story was to get to the bottom of it, and fast. The best approach would have been to call ad- ditional players off the bench to do what re- sourceful reporters do: hunt for facts. They might have come from interviewing those hospitalized, from transit workers, from expanding the search through social media or from the cop who has viewed Metro video. Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli seemed to agree. “Frankly, it was hard to get anything,” he said. “But if we had more people, we could have perhaps tracked down more participants.” With the “for and about Washington” strategy so critical to retaining The Post’s local readership — especially readers of the week’s largest news- paper — this was a lost opportunity. My bet is that more reporters, deployed sooner, would have pro- vided readers what they needed last Sunday. What they got instead was, well, not much.


Andrew Alexander can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@washpost.com. For daily updates, read the Omblog at http://voices.washingtonpost.com/ ombudsman-blog/.


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