Sep 10 2010

Josh Ruebner on Mideast peace talks, Diane Ravitch on grading teachers


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This week on CounterSpin: The theme in coverage of the current Mideast peace negotiations going on in Washington between Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas appears to be skepticism. But does being critical of this process mean you don’t want peace? We’ll hear from Josh Ruebner, the national advocacy director for the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation.

Also on the show: Grading teachers based on how well their students perform on tests is a popular practice with so-called education reformers, White House policy makers and journalists. You almost wouldn’t know that the controversial policy has many critics and has even sparked demonstrations against the Los Angeles Times, when it published the rankings of 6,000 primary school teachers. We’ll talk to education researcher Diane Ravitch, a contributor to a new report on teacher ratings from the Economic Policy Institute, and the author of The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education.

All of that’s coming up but first, as usual, we’ll take a look back at the week’s press.

—We talked with Phyllis Bennis last week about how White House claims about “the end of combat in Iraq” were not exactly accurate, even though much of the media took them at face value. As Bennis and other critics have indicated, 50,000 U.S. combat troops, re-branded as advisors, remain in Iraq, including 4,500 special forces tasked with hunting and killing insurgents and training Iraqi assassination teams. This, in addition to increasing number of private contractors who will come under the command of the State Department, instead of the Pentagon, a move that gets around the “Status of Forces” agreement that the U.S. has with Iraq.

So, there’s no excuse for NBC News anchor Brian Williams to report without qualification, as he did on August 18, “It’s gone on longer than the Civil War, longer than World War II., and tonight, U.S. combat troops have pulled out of Iraq.”

The same for liberal MSNBC commentators like Keith Olbermann, who touted the story as a historic event in a “special edition” of Countdown, on which Olbermann’s fellow MSNBC anchor Rachel Maddow gushed about the very last U.S. combat troop to leave Iraq: “We just saw, right here live with that gate closing, the last U.S. combat troop, I’m totally covered in goose bumps. It is an important moment.'”

But as Salon‘s Glenn Greenwald points out, kudos should go to Associated Press Standards editor, Tom Kent, who, in a memorandum, instructed AP journalists not to perpetuate the White House hype. Wrote Kent: “To begin with, combat in Iraq is not over, and we should not uncritically repeat suggestions that it is, even if they come from senior officials. The situation on the ground in Iraq is no different today than it has been for some months.”

—The debate over tax policy is back in the media—specifically, the debate about whether to extend the Bush tax cuts. Barack Obama has long supported the idea of extending those lower rates for 98 percent of the population. The highest-earning 2 percent, meanwhile, would see their top rates go back up to where they were in the 1990s.

But some media seem to be trying to make that hard to understand. The Washington Post ran a September 8 piece that more or less got the facts right. But the headline was “Obama Set Against Bush Tax Cuts.” That spin might please the Republican National Committee; it does no service to readers. The New York Times had a similar piece previewing Obama’s speech on taxes. The story explained that Obama supports renewing many of the cuts, and further, that his package is “designed to entice support from big businesses and their Republican allies.” The headline? “Obama Is Against a Compromise on Bush Tax Cuts.” Maybe they should give the headline writers a break and just print: “Obama Said Something; Story Below.”

—The September 7 New York Times featured an interesting story on its front page: Republican operatives in Arizona are recruiting “drifters and homeless people” to run on the Green Party ticket in order to pull votes away from Democrats. One of the Republicans involved, Steve May, freely admitted his role and introduced the reporter to his hand-picked candidates. Two Democrats are quoted slamming the tactic, but Columbia Journalism Review‘s Joel Meares noticed something missing: the Green Party. The Times notes that “the Green Party has urged its supporters to steer clear of the rogue candidates,” but not a single genuine Green Party official or member gets to speak in the piece. At one point, the reporter explains that the Greens don’t have the resources to put candidates on ballots around the state, which creates the opportunity for write-in contenders to win primaries and get on the November ballot. Stories that deem the Greens worth talking about, but not to, probably aren’t going to help that.

—Arizona governor Jan Brewer was forced to acknowledge, sort of, her abject lying and fear-mongering about border violence in a September 3 debate. Prodded by her Democratic opponent, Brewer claimed she “misspoke” when she claimed on Fox News in June that there had been beheadings in the Arizona desert, and presumably misspoke again when she reasserted the claim later on local TV. “That was an error, if I said that,” said the woman who said that, at least twice.

It’s good to put that particular lie to rest, but it would be better if corporate media themselves would revisit their own distortions and errors in coverage of the issue. For years now we’ve read about violence “spilling over” into the U.S. from Mexico, as though that country’s crisis were something alien and unknown, having nothing to do with the U.S. or its policies. A new report from the group Mayors Against Illegal Guns underscores how this “spill over” metaphor distorts reality:

In recent years, the escalating drug cartel violence in Mexico has claimed tens of thousands of lives, fueled in part by thousands of guns illegally trafficked from the United States. In fact, 90 percent of guns recovered and traced from Mexican crime scenes originated from gun dealers in the United States.

Most of the guns come from Texas, California and Arizona. The imaginary crime wave supposedly caused by unauthorized immigration from Mexico is fodder for the Jan Brewers of the country. It would be helpful for media observers to call attention to the actual assistance U.S. gun dealers are providing to violent criminals on the other side of the border.

—Finally, two of the biggest funders of climate-denial propaganda, trying to conceal the scientific consensus that humans are warming the planet, are the oil company ExxonMobil and the oil tycoons of the Koch family, led by Charles and David Koch. And two of the biggest funders of Nova, PBS‘s leading science program and one of the main sources of scientific information on television, are ExxonMobil and David Koch.

Is there something wrong with this picture? PBS doesn’t think so. Nova’s executive producer, asked about Koch’s funding of the program, declared that Nova “maintains complete, independent editorial control of its content.” Which is, of course, what commercial broadcasters say about their sponsors; the reason we have public broadcasting in the first place is because we don’t believe them.

PBS ombud Michael Getler, for his part, asserts that “as a viewer of what strikes me and a lot of others as a consistently first-rate program, I trust Nova.” If “trust” were an adequate response, though, then you wouldn’t need to have an ombud, would you?

Koch’s funding of Nova became an issue after Nova reran an episode on August 31 about human evolution that veered off into a peculiar discussion of the positive benefits of climate change. “We’re not adapted to any one environment or climate, but to many; we are creatures of climate change,” the narrator declared, followed by scientist Mark Maslin saying, “We can survive the future, because we are that creature, because we are that smart.”

What the program doesn’t say is that Maslin believes we can survive the future by restricting the burning of fossil fuels that makes billions for Nova’s sponsors. He instead comes across as the kind of don’t worry, be happy Pollyanna that those sponsors like to fund—well, that’s just a coincidence, isn’t it? If you trust Nova.


CounterSpin: The Associated Press reported September 3 that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, now engaged in talks with Palestinian President Abbas, faced some internal opposition to what they called his “peace moves.” The piece went on to quote a Palestinian activist who it described as opposed to the resumption of the talks, “though he has supported peace efforts in the past.” The idea seems clear: if you want peace between Israelis and Palestinians, you ought to support the current U.S.-brokered negotiations now underway. But is that true? Or are there legitimate concerns about the process that we ought to engage?

We’re joined now by Josh Ruebner, he’s the national advocacy director for the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation.

Welcome to CounterSpin, Josh Ruebner!

Josh Ruebner: Thanks so much for having me.

CS: Well, it might seem like common sense to think that it’s bound to be a good thing for parties engaged in conflict to sit and talk, but in your recent piece on these negotiations you suggest that it isn’t really that simple. What could be the downside to something that’s called a “peace talk?”

JR: Well, I think it’s true that if both parties to a conflict agree to come to the table and negotiate in good faith, there is every reason to expect that the sides will be able to reach a positive resolution to the conflict. But that’s not at all the situation that you have here with the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian talks. Recently Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was quoted in a leaked videotape from 2001 bragging about how he stopped the 1990s peace process, known as the Oslo process. And his foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman is himself an Israeli settler who lives on expropriated Palestinian land and has called for the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians. So it’s very difficult to see, with negotiating partners such as these, how Palestinians can reasonably expect good faith efforts out of their Israeli counterparts for these negotiations. And the danger of course is that failed negotiations, sham negotiations, only breed cynicism and anger and bitterness and disillusionment about the prospects for coexistence in the long term.

CS: And if talks fail, the idea that well, we tried talking—that can have a material impact. Well, you also have concerns about the very structure of these talks. For example, the matter of who is at the table, or what principles are going to guide them.

JR: Absolutely. The Obama administration has really done itself no favors by convening these negotiations with no terms of reference, as they’re known in diplomatic language. Terms of reference are basically guiding principles for negotiations. And when Special Envoy for Middle East Peace George Mitchell was asked at the press conference when he announced the resumption of negotiations if there were going to be terms of reference for these negotiations, he said no the parties will figure that out for themselves. And that’s a really very dangerous thing, I think, because all previous Israeli-Palestinian negotiations have been based on very clear guiding principles, and those refer to different UN resolutions that have been passed over the decade that kind of lay the framework for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But the absence of those guiding principles, what’s going to happen is that Israel will use its overwhelming asymmetry of power to try to dictate unfair terms to the Palestinians that are not based on human rights, not based on international law, not based on UN resolutions, and therefore don’t have a snowball’s chance of being accepted.

CS: The New York Times ran a headline: “Settlements in West Bank Are Clouding Peace Talks,” which sounded a little inappropriate, but I took more seriously a Q&A that the AP ran for readers on September 3. In answer to a question about what’s “standing in the way of a deal?” AP explained: “Among the major obstacles is Palestinian opposition to Israel’s expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.” You sort of have to read that as Palestinians being the obstacles to peace on the settlement issue. What do you make of that framing? Is it just Palestinians who oppose settlements in the West Bank?

JR: Well, I think that framing is so problematic. I mean how can you expect Palestinians to sit down at the table and negotiate with Israel when Israel continues to colonize the exact territory that is envisioned for a Palestinian state. And of course it’s not just Palestinians who believe that Israeli settlements are illegal. They are in fact illegal under international law, under the Fourth Geneva Convention, which expressly prohibits an occupying power from transferring its civilian population into territories that it occupies, which is exactly what Israel has done since 1967. And the entire world, including the United States, views Israel’s settlements as being illegal.

CS: Well, maybe one of the damaging themes that we find in media is just the idea that “there will ever be conflict” in the Middle East; it’s not solveable, it’s tribal, it’s like death and taxes. Is there anything inherently inevitably complicated about this process, as opposed to South Africa or Northern Ireland? And where do you see cause for hope?

JR: I don’t think there’s anything inherently complicated or difficult to understand about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. You have two nationalisms struggling over the same piece of land. And for the past 100-plus years, first the international Zionist movement, and then the state of Israel has attempted to impose its domination over all of historical Palestine, which is what it’s done and continues to do this day. Really the only equitable solution to this is to share the historical land of Palestine between the two nationalisms. But so far, Israel hasn’t been willing to treat Palestinians as human beings who are equal and have equal rights to them and to the land that they are the indigenous inhabitants of. You know, the situation of apartheid in South Africa lasted in one guise or another for hundreds of years. But when the parties came to the table and the rulers of apartheid South Africa decided that they had to dismantle their discriminatory regime, the negotiations themselves actually didn’t take all that long. So, you know, if Israel were to come to the table, were to say you know what we’re not going try to exert apartheid control over Palestinians anymore, we’re not going to occupy Palestinians anymore, we’re going to treat Palestinians as equal human beings to us, then I don’t believe there would be any need to have these negotiations drag on for more than a year.

CS: Well, and you see some change in the air, on the ground in terms of public opinion, but also in media coverage.

JR: Absolutely. I think the fact that Israel attacked Lebanon in 2006 and attacked the Gaza Strip in 2008 and 2009 in such a really ferocious and brutal manner has really opened the eyes of millions of people around the world to the brutality of Israel’s treatment of not only Palestinians but Lebanese as well. And I think that the proliferation of alternative media, new media, social media makes it much more difficult for Israel to control the narrative that it’s the victim in this conflict, that it’s the underdog, that it’s surrounded by a bunch of hostile powers. Because people can see for themselves through videos, through on-the-ground testimony that don’t need to be filtered through the mainstream media, that that indeed is not that case, that indeed Israel is the aggressor and is victimizing Palestinians and Lebanese. So I think that’s contributing to a vast sea change in public opinion.

CS: We’ve been speaking with Josh Ruebner, national advocacy director for the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation. They’re on the web at His piece, “Top 10 Reasons for Skepticism on Israeli-Palestinian Talks,” appeared on the Huffington Post.

Thank you very much for joining us today on CounterSpin.

JR: Thanks so much for having me.


CounterSpin: The Los Angeles Times sparked a controversy in August when it published rankings of 6,000 primary school teachers, derived from a method that uses student test scores to assess teacher effectiveness. As we tape this show, teachers are organizing against the paper for publishing the rankings, which they say are unreliable and unfair. These kinds of assessments, largely eschewed by teachers, are championed by many in the so-called school reform movement. They are a key part of the Obama administration’s Race to the Top education program, which among other things, rewards schools who fire teachers deemed ineffective by the measure.

Joining us now to talk about teacher ratings is Diane Ravitch. She is a research professor of education at New York University and the author of The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education.

Diane Ravitch, welcome to CounterSpin!

Diane Ravitch: Well, thank you for inviting me.

CS: Well, in addition to your other writing on teacher ratings, you are one of several education experts who have contributed to a new report by the Economic Policy Institute that takes a critical view of what is called the Value Added method of assessing teacher effectiveness. Could you briefly describe what that method entails and why you find it unreliable?

DR: Well, briefly what the method entails is determining whether students have higher test scores after being with a particular teacher or lower test scores. If they have higher scores then the teacher is effective, and if they have lower then the teacher is ineffective. The problem with the method is that it’s not reliable. It produces lots of false positives, and it will identify as effective some teachers who are not effective, and it will identify as ineffective some very good teachers. And that’s because teachers are not in complete control of everything that happens in their classrooms. They get students randomly assigned to them. And so one year they may have a very cooperative and enthusiastic group of students who are eager to learn, and their results will look wonderful, and they’re effective teachers. And then the same teacher the next year may have a different mix of students that includes some trouble makers some disruptive kids, and that year the teacher is not effective. There have been many studies of value added assessment that find it’s not reliable; it’s not a good way of identifying good teachers or bad teachers; and frankly I don’t think it should be used. It has perverse consequences, but we can talk about that in a minute.

CS: So what do you make of what is happening in Southern California, over the Los Angeles Times coverage of the teacher rankings?

DR: Well, you know, it’s a funny thing: I was interviewed by one of the writers of the article, and he said, well what do you think about the method? and I told him my problems, and I said it’s possible it might be one among many measures, and he said ah everyone agrees it should be one among many measures. And then they go ahead and they print the rankings, meaning that they totally ignore all the other measures. The other measures being the supervisors’ observations going into a classroom and actually watching the teacher teach, seeing whether she’s good with the students, whether he can get across the ideas, the reviews of peers, other teachers who work with the same teacher, the quality of student work coming from that classroom. There are many other measures that would be considered, but the Los Angeles Times only printed one measure, which contradicts their acknowledgment that there should be multiple measures. And their having done this, there are two things about it. One was that they printed photographs of teachers and named names and said here’s an effective teacher, here’s an ineffective teacher. And of course their list of 6,000 did exactly that: these are good teachers; there are bad teachers. When you have a method of identifying good and bad teachers that’s so flawed that the nation’s leading testing experts say it’s highly flawed and not reliable, then it’s shameful to use it to identify people and to damage their careers. I think it’s a lawsuit waiting to happen, but you know, who knows, maybe no one will bring a lawsuit. I just think it’s wrong.

CS: Well, these teacher assessments play a key role in the Obama Administration’s Race to the Top program, which has received very little criticism by the corporate media. What questions should journalists be asking about Race to the Top, particularly where it regards these teacher assessments?

DR: Well, the media has been incredibly compliant about Race to the Top. They’re looking on this as a sporting event, and saying isn’t it terrific, there’s a competition for money and some states will win the money and some states will lose the money. Well, they should be skeptical. First of all, why are states competing for federal funds? We’re all paying taxes to provide better schools for as many kids as possible. The whole purpose of federal funding is to support the neediest kids in the neediest schools—that was why federal legislation was passed in 1965. And suddenly there’s a competition where the states with the best consultants that gets grands from the Gates Foundation to help them prepare their application, they’re going to win money, and the others too bad. I mean, Alabama is a desperately poor state. They came in last. Did they deserve to come in last? Well, by the Obama Administration’s criteria they did. But the media has been amazingly uninquisitive about what the evidence is for any of these so-called reforms. I don’t think any of them are reforms because they have no evidence that they work. There’s only one story that I know of in the national media, one written by Nick Anderson of the Washington Post, looking at Arnie Duncan’s record in Chicago. All the things that he’s advocating, or almost all the things he’s advocating, were tried in Chicago—this idea that you close schools that have low scores, you open new schools, you shift kids around, you put big emphasis on test scores. Chicago has seen very little benefit from this approach, and yet it’s an underreported story. As I said, except for Nick Anderson I haven’t seen anyone say what happened in Chicago when these methods were applied. Using the value added assessment, that’s been done for a while now in Dallas; it’s been done in Memphis. And I don’t think that anyone’s looking to Tennessee or Dallas as being shining stars of how they created a remarkably better teaching force by using these methods.

CS: You mentioned Alabama, and it seems to me when looking at the way this program is applied, that students that are in deprived-resource areas, who are already being punished by the system, are going to be further punished by the federal government by the Race to the Top program. Is this what you mean by the perverse outcomes that you mentioned earlier?

DR: What I was speaking about with perverse outcomes was that when you put the emphasis on test scores that the Obama Administration is promoting, you incentivize teachers, first of all, to teach to what are generally acknowledged to be not very good tests—pick one out of four bubbles. They don’t test whether kids understand anything, they just test their test-taking skills. And so in many districts, we have the districts spending millions and millions of dollars to teach test-taking skills, and the kids may be getting higher test scores, but they don’t know who the governor is, they don’t know who their senator is, they don’t know how to vote, they don’t know anything about geography, they’re losing their classes in the arts because the arts are being sacrificed to reading and math. And the other perverse consequence is this narrowing of the curriculum. Just this morning I read an article about many of the districts in Oregon dropping art teachers, canceling art classes, canceling music classes, getting rid of librarians, because the emphasis is on reading and math. And I think that’s what we will see more and more of as the screws are tightened on teachers and they’re told that the test scores will determine your income and your future in this line of work, is more teaching to the test and less time for for history, geography, literature, civics, foreign languages, science, physical education, the arts. Everything that makes for a good education will be thrown out and sacrificed to the pursuit of test scores.

CS: Why is it you think the media are so fond of the so-called reform measures, charter schools, standardized testing teacher assessments, when education experts themselves say they don’t work?

DR: Well, the media first of all, loves the concept of competition. These are all corporate media where very wealthy people own them and they believe in competition and the bottom line, and they play to a certain kind of popular resentment against teachers because teachers belong to unions and unions are unpopular. Teachers have pensions and these days most people don’t have pensions and teachers get benefits in addition to their pensions and a lot of people don’t have benefits. So there’s this certain kind of populist resentment against teachers and the claim is that they have a cushy life. Well, they don’t have a cushy life so there’s a lot of clamor now not only to punish teachers and fire teachers, but to eliminate seniority, take away pensions and bring them down to where the clerks and hourly workers are.

CS: We’ve been speaking with Diane Ravitch, author of The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, and New York University education professor. She also co-writes Bridging Differences, an education blog on the Education Week website.

Thanks again for joining us today on CounterSpin, Diane Ravitch!

DR: Thank you Steve, it’s great to talk with you.