May 1 2009

Stan Karp on No Child Left Behind, Robert Greenwald on Rethink Afghanistan


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This week on CounterSpin: No Child Left Behind may be up for reconsideration in Congress soon, but if current coverage of national math and reading scores is an indication, media coverage will need to get a lot deeper to be useful. We’ll hear from Stan Karp of Rethinking Schools about what questions ought to be asked.

Also on the show: With an online campaign, and the “real time” documentary, Rethink Afghanistan, Robert Greenwald and his colleagues at Brave New Films are trying to break through the media embargo that excludes true critics of the Afghanistan war from U.S. policy discussions. Greenwald, who recently returned from Afghanistan, will join us to talk about Rethink Afghanistan.


Rethinking Schools

Rethink Afghanistan


All of that’s coming up but first we’ll take a look back at the week’s press:

–In a May 4 piece titled, “The Secret of His Success,” Newsweek‘s Fareed Zakaria gives Barack Obama high marks on his first 100 days in office. What’s interesting, though, is Zakaria’s explanation. He writes that while the country is more liberal than it’s been in 20 years, Obama’s genius lies in his charting a “middle course.” Zakaria writes that on Obama’s bank bailouts, “the most spirited critiques of his policies have come not from the right but from the left”– which leads Zakaria to conclude that “He may or may not have the policy right, but he certainly has the politics right.”

Zakaria also notes with approval Obama’s decision not to pursue changes to NAFTA or accountability for Bush-era torture (which he characterizes as a “policy disagreement”). He lauds Obama’s “centrist course” in Iraq. And he commends Obama’s handling of public anger, “giving voice to outrage but not enacting populist policies.”

So not matching the mood of the country and “giving voice” to ideas but not doing anything about them…. It’s clear this is the way to please Zakaria; it’s not at all clear who else he imagines it would please.

USA Today had a remarkable headline on April 29 on a story about Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter switching from the Republican to the Democratic Party: “Leaving GOP, Specter Gives Dems a Boost in Stifling Dissent.”

The phrase “stifling dissent” here means that with 59 votes in the Senate, the Democrats will be more likely to be able to overcome a Republican filibuster to pass legislation. This is really a misuse of the word “dissent,” which means the expression of opposition to official policies; it doesn’t mean that a minority automatically gets to block policies from being enacted that are supported by a majority of elected representatives.

This same misunderstanding was found in the USA Today article itself, which reported, “As a minority in the House and without the votes to filibuster the Senate, Republicans would find it harder to block Democratic initiatives or even be heard.” Actually, under Senate rules, each side does get a chance to debate for several hours, so the minority is guaranteed a chance to “be heard”; what USA Today seems to be saying is that no one will pay attention to what they have to say unless they have the power to block legislation. Of course, it’s the corporate media that largely decide what views get taken seriously in the national debate, and if they choose to ignore viewpoints because they are unlikely to have an immediate impact on official policy, that just goes to show that they really don’t understand–or value–dissent.

–On April 28, the Washington Post‘s Richard Cohen told readers he is against torture–but then carved out a bizarre case for torture. For starters, Cohen explained that the public debate over torture “has been infected with silly arguments about utility: whether it works or not. Of course it works–sometimes or rarely.”

Well, that’s hard enough to understand as is. But his one example of torture “working” doesn’t actually make the case at all. Cohen referred to Abdul Hakin Murad, an Al Qaeda operative arrested in the Philippines in 1995. As Cohen put it, when authorities told Murad that he was about to be turned over to Israeli intelligence, he spilled the beans. So, the mere threat of torture worked.

Cohen’s history, though, is all wrong. Murad was, by almost every account, actually tortured by Philippine authorities. And according to many accounts, relying heavily on the court records of Murad’s prosecution, the valuable evidence in this case was obtained before he was tortured, in the course of routine police investigation.

Cohen goes on to explain that if threatened torture works, then real torture must also work: “Some in the intelligence field, including a former CIA director, say it does, and I assume they say this on the basis of evidence. They can’t all be fools or knaves.” That makes even less sense than his other point. “Some” people in any field can believe just about anything; that doesn’t mean they’re right. Cohen is clearly confused about torture. He’s also confusing.

Fox host Bill O’Reilly has been passionately defending Bush-era torture for some time. But on April 23rd he took his argument further; not only does torture “work,” but it is actually broadly popular, too. Said O’Reilly, “According to a new Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll, most Americans want tough interrogations of top terror killers. When asked if they would support using torture on Osama bin Laden to get information, 56 percent say they favor doing that, including 42 percent of the Democrats polled. Thirty-nine percent oppose.”

Well, it’s true that Fox‘s poll found a majority favoring torturing Osama bin Laden, but you might as well ask people if they support torturing Satan. That sort of question doesn’t tell us much. But was that the only question the Fox poll asked? No. O’Reilly didn’t quote the other responses because they would have undermined his case.

For instance, one Fox question asked the following: “Do you favor or oppose allowing the CIA, in extreme circumstances, to use enhanced interrogation techniques, even torture, to obtain information from prisoners that might protect the United States from terrorist attacks?”

The response was 48 percent opposed, 43 percent in favor, and 7 percent responding that it would depend on other circumstances. Which means O’Reilly’s categorical claim that “most Americans want tough interrogations of top terror killers,” was deceptive, even as compared to Fox‘s own polls.

Outside the Fox bubble, in what we’ll call the “real world,” there are polls, like a recent ABC/Washington Post poll that show that Americans, by a large margin–58 percent to 40 percent–say that torture should never be used, “no matter the circumstances.”

–The New York Times ran a story April 26 on the country’s “doctor shortage” and how the lack of especially primary care physicians may hamper Obama’s health care policy goals. The article noted several proposed solutions–from increasing enrollment in medical schools to increasing medicare payments to general practitioners. Not mentioned, as Dean Baker pointed out on his blog Beat the Press, was the idea of bringing in doctors from abroad, where training them, even to U.S. standards, is far cheaper. Baker says relaxing the barriers that protect doctors from foreign competition would bring economic gains in excess of those derived from opening up trade in textiles, cars or steel.

Whatever you think of the idea, it’s noteworthy how media that champion free trade at every turn, even if it pits U.S. workers against the underpaid and exploited workers in other countries, somehow drop that value when it comes to certain job categories.


CounterSpin: The White House and Congress may soon revisit No Child Left Behind, the 2002 law that called for more standardized tests in the country’s schools and penalties for schools that don’t meet certain benchmarks. Reporters had that in mind in covering the release of what’s sometimes called the Nation‘s Report Card–the scores released by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which look at long term trends in math and reading. But whether you think those scores vindicate No Child Left Behind, or suggest it isn’t fulfilling its promise seemed to depend on which newspaper you read. The Washington Post said the results provide fuel for NCLB’s renewal, the New York Times says they don’t and USA Today went with a good news/bad news approach. What, if anything, do the numbers mean and, more importantly, what’s still missing from the conversation about No Child Left Behind? Here to shed some light on the subject is Stan Karp, he’s an editor at the magazine Rethinking Schools. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Stan Karp!

Stan Karp: Thanks for having me.

CS: Well, the Washington Post, let me ask you about them first. The lead on their April 29 story was “Math and reading scores for 9- and 13-year-olds have risen since the 2002 enactment of No Child Left Behind, providing fuel to those who want to renew the federal law and strengthen its reach in high schools.” There’s kind of a lot to parse there even in just that one sentence. I wonder what you make of that as a flat declaration?

SK: Well, it’s amazing what kind of policy agendas can be piggybacked on a few point swings in a standardized test on math and reading. Basically what the NAEP–shorthand for the National Assessment for Educational Progress–score show is that the rate of test score improvement slowed since NCLB has had an effect. There have been some steady gains over since the 1970s and the reading scores for 9-year-olds and for 13-year-olds and the math scores, but those scores actually peaked back in the ’80s and the test score gap between blacks and white students and Hispanics and white students are actually wider than they have been in the past. The focus on the 17-year-olds is interesting because the next big push is going to be at the high school level and the testing regime at the high school level is having a particularly damaging effect on poor and minority students, which are really hemorrhaging from public high schools because of high school exit tests–the other part of this whole picture.

CS: So, in a way this article, which seemed really more ideological than most–there were no critics of No Child Left Behind, no one who had any interpretation of the NAEP scores other than that this meant “yes, this is working and let’s have more of it”–but you’re saying that in as much as we’ve seen improvement in these scores (and I’ve heard this in the past), it predates No Child Left Behind–that the improvement over the long term doesn’t seem to be connected to the act at all, time-wise.

SK: Right, NCLB was passed in 2002, went into effect really around 2003/2004 and 2004-2008 is when the scores are from–the time period for looking at the increases. And since NCLB first went into effect the gaps have either widened, didn’t change at all or in a few narrow cases closed by minimal amounts–and the long term trends again show that the biggest gains were made during the period when there was still a push for school desegregation, when there were increases in the ’70s and early ’80s in some school funding and when black and Hispanic students, some of them were escaping into suburban and middle class schools. One of the things that’s changed a great deal since the early ’70s is the make up of the testing population. In 1975, 80 percent of the 9-year-old kids for example were white. In 2008 it was 58 percent and so the change in the demographics also kind of makes the comparisons a little bit skewed.

CS: It complicates the picture. Well, No Child Left Behind was meant to be about closing that gap, was it not, between white and minority students, so it seems like if we’re going to look at the NAEP as a measure, shouldn’t it be that gap that we’re talking about? Isn’t that the promise?

SK: Right, so it’s extremely damaging to to NCLB that the improvements in the gap were made in the previous period, that there were not improvements to be shown much in these scores. And it’s interesting that even some of the people like Margaret Spellings and others who had supported NCLB are claiming that this focus goes back 16 years. Well, NCLB and it’s particular testing regime has only been here about four or five years so the idea of crediting some previous improvements in scores for minority students is just inaccurate, and really what the tests show is that after billions of dollars have been poured into testing companies and scripted reading curriculums and state standards, that NCLB has been unable to produce significant improvements even on the reading and math tests–the two subjects which it focuses on to the exclusion of everything else.

CS: Well, let me ask you just for a little bit of that bigger picture. The Associated Press offered a kind of thumbnail description of the NCLB on April 28, which read: “No Child Left Behind prods schools to improve test scores each year, so every student can read and do math on grade level by the year 2014. It holds schools accountable for progress among each group of kids, including those who have disabilities or are learning English.” Well, improving scores, holding schools accountable, that sounds great, and of course we remember that’s how NCLB was sold. What is missing from that explanation of No Child Left Behind? I guess my question is: Isn’t it sort of late in the game to be describing it in terms of its promise when we can actually be talking about how it’s actually played out” But what’s wrong with improving and holding accountable?

SK: There’s nothing wrong with improving schools and holding them accountable. The problem is NCLB doesn’t do this very well. There was a recent report from the Civil Rights Project at UCLA that talks about how the basic design of NCLB actually encourages schools to dumb down the curriculum to low-level standardized multiple choice tests and turn the schools into test prep centers. And it’s interesting if you look at the test scores and the difference between the NCLB tests and NAEP tests. I mean, people need to understand that NAEP tests use a system of sampling, they’re not the tests that are used for the NCLB accountability. NAEP uses sampling, about 26,000 kids, doesn’t test every kid every year like NCLB requires the states to do. As a matter of fact, federal law prevents using the NAEP scores the way NCLB scores are used to impose sanctions on schools or diploma penalties on kids. The NCLB accountability system is a kind of a balloon mortgage scheme that require states to test every kid every year in every grade and reach an unreachable goal towards 100 percent passing rate for all students in all groups by 2014. But testing every kid every year and measuring the results against benchmarks that no real schools have ever met is really more of an enabling assistant for imposing sanctions and creating pressure to privatize schools that it is to improve them. The law has forced schools to give some 65 million mandated tests on top of the ones they were already giving. When it was passed in 2002 there were only 19 states giving annual reading and math tests in grades 3 through 8. Today, under federal mandate, all 50 do but this obsessive testing doesn’t really increase the capacity of schools to improve or to deliver better educational services–especially when the test scores largely reflect the poverty and the inequality and the segregation that exists all around them. It’s little bit like passing out thermometers in a malaria epidemic when people really need medicine and better health care.

CS: Well, let me just ask you finally and briefly, because NCLB is going to be in the media down the road as it goes before Congress again, what questions or just what whole line of inquiry would you like to see journalists go down, or what voices should be included that you think maybe they tend to leave out?

SK: Well, I think there are three things people need to look into: One is the effect that the testing especially is having at the high school level. California just issued a study: over 22,000 students in California are not getting diplomas because of the high school exit tests and girls and Latino and African American students are especially impacted. It’s 135,000 kids in Texas and the increased emphasis that’s going to be placed on high school exit testing is a real concern about pushing thousands of kids out of school. There’s also a concern that we have used NCLB to label over 25,000 schools as failures, impose penalities on over 12,000 of them. They’re identifying as failing many more schools than there’s any capacity to help, so this hasn’t been helpful. There’s also pressure to privatize these schools and to turn over the public education systems to the same corporate interests that have looted and mismanaged the economy. And the last thing that people should really pay attention to is, unfortunately, Obama’s education secretary. Arnie Duncan is looking to double down on this test-and-punish strategy by adopting national curriculum standards and adapting national tests. And if we do this on the national level, we’re going to get the same kind of results that NCLB has consolidated in the past five years and the damage will really be significant if we don’t change the flaw.

CS: We’ve been speaking to Stan Karp. He’s an editor at Rethinking Schools. You can find them on the web at Stan Karp, thank you very much for joining us today on CounterSprin.

SK: Thank you very much.


CounterSpin: When it comes to media coverage of U.S.-Afghanistan policy, anti-war voices are virtually non-existent. But that’s not because they don’t exist. In the real world, millions of Americans oppose the war, even if they go unrepresented in policy debates and the media. Robert Greenwald would like to see that change.

With the film Rethink Afghanistan, an evolving, online documentary, and a campaign by the same name, the activist filmmaker and his colleagues at Brave New Films, are trying to spark debate and raise questions about the war and U.S. policy. Greenwald, who recently returned from Afghanistan, joins us now by phone from Southern California.

Welcome back to CounterSpin Robert Greenwald!

Robert Greenwald: Thank you. It’s wonderful to be with you.

CS: Tell us about the film project. What does it mean that Rethink Afghanistan is a “real time” documentary and what are the advantages of this evolving format?

RG: Well, when we all first came together around OutFoxed, I think it was about six months or eight months to finish a film, which was a record time but over the course of life changing since then and the speed of the internet changing, we have been focusing actually on short videos at Brave New Films, which you can put out in a day, a week, a couple of weeks. When we came to make the decision that we wanted to take on the issue of Afghanistan and tell stories that weren’t getting out there, we realized that we didn’t have a year, because policy is being decided right now. So what we’ve evolved is a new and interesting kind of breakthrough where as we finish a chapter of the film, finish it meaning interview, edit, and fundraise, we immediately put it out. So if you go to you will see one chapter on the issue of “Will Troops Help?” another on the issue of Pakistan, a third on the issue of the cost of war and we’re working on the next section right now about the whole question of how women are affected by the foreign troops in Afghanistan. So it’s an evolving documentary, it’s in real-time, we also have some debates up there. Katrina vanden Heuvel from the Nation, who’s opposed to the military solution debates Larry Corb from the Center for American Progress and we have some of the videos that I made when I was in Afghanistan.

CS: You just mentioned the debates and I’ve noticed on the Brave New Film’s website you have video featuring those debates that you mentioned. I watched one with Tom Hayden, the dove, debating hawk Michael O’Hanlon. Is this a conscious effort to offer what the media is not offering?

RG: Definitely. I mean this is, in many ways, one of the most critical issues because we know what happens when a country goes to war, we know what happens when there’s an escalation, and there are simple, basic questions here that are not being asked: How many troops? Even those in favor of the military solution say it needs to be a hundred,- two hundred-, four hundred thousand. We’re not having a discussion of those. How long are the troops going to stay there? How much is it going to cost? What is the end game? How do we know when we’ve won? How will we know when it’s time to get out of there? As the President has said about Iraq, easy to get in and hard to get out. So there are simple, basic questions that it’s critical we discuss, we debate, we ask, and that’s why we’re calling it Rethink Afghanistan, using these core questions that everything evolves and revolves around.

CS: Well, one of the things we have noticed and we’ve already mentioned here is about how coverage of Afghanistan, President Obama’s surge, and so forth, hardly includes any anti-war activists. One might think such people didn’t even exist. Tell us about the anti-war movement and your thoughts on why it gets so little coverage.

RG: Well, part of it is a function–not even a political function–part of it’s a function of the way for-profit media works. They’re always about the latest thing, something that’s going to catch the attention of people, and those who are opposed to Afghanistan or think we need a different policy have to find different ways of communicating. One of the things we’ve done, by the way, in the videos is we have a huge number people from Afghanistan, our amazing crew has interviewed people through telephone and Skype and iChat and sending crews in Afghanistan–and of course when I was there I interviewed about 20 people, including people who were elected officials, MPs, journalists, activists. We’ve interviewed people in India, all over the world, literally, in an effort to make sure that a variety of voices are heard. Look, the Russians were in Afghanistan for years. We have a general talking about the fact that the United States is making exactly the same mistakes. We have a young man who’s a peace activist in Afghanistan said to me, “You know, I want you to drop bombs on my country,” and I said, “What?” and he said, “Education bombs.” And we have women talking about the fact that it is a completely erroneous idea that troops somehow went into Afghanistan to help the feminist revolution.

CS: Well, another one of the things that strikes me is that a lot of the media debate is directed by the political debate, and the political debate does not include a lot of doves–a lot of anti-war voices–and the media is just reflecting that. And it seems one of the things that Rethink Afghanistan is doing is trying to break through that sort of exclusion. But another thing that we notice when we’re looking at coverage of Afghanistan is how Afghanistan is really objectified as really a symbol of American resolve, toughness, instead of a country where people live and sometimes die as a result of U.S. policy. One of the things you’re trying to do really is to try to humanize the story.

RG: Yeah, that’s exactly right. We know what happened in Iraq where there was a rush to war, it became the first option rather than the last option, and everything became about evil Saddam Hussein, not having any discussion about the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who have subsequently been killed–and that was one of the reasons I went to Afghanistan, interviewed and talked to all those kinds of people. And by the way, we just did have, I think, a significant success last week. Senator Kerry and the Foreign Relations Committee was having hearings and we were able to connect them with both Andrew Bacevich, who’s very well known, but in some ways even more critically, a young man who literally had contacted me on Facebook. He had heard about our Rethink campaign. He was a veteran from Afghanistan, he was opposed to the war, and he contacted me on Facebook. Five weeks later he was testifying before the Committee–Rick Reyes–and he did an absolutely brilliant job and he’s now started a group of Afghan vets opposed to the war.

CS: I’d like to ask you, how do the film and the Rethink Afghanistan campaign fit together and with regard to that, how can listeners become involved in your project or in allied efforts over Afghanistan?

RG: Well, the first and best thing is to go to, look at some of the videos, and then spread them around. I mean we don’t have CBS, we don’t have Murdoch in our corner, apparently. But we do have people all over the country who’ve taken these videos, who’ve sent them with notes to their email lists, and they’ve said, “Look at this; think about this.” That’s the sort of easy first step if you will. There’s going to be a vote coming up in the supplemental bill which is going to be 83 billion dollars, asking for money for Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s a perfect opportunity to call your senator, to call whoever represents you in the House and say, “What are you planning to do? How are you going to vote?” And ask them to take a look at any one of the videos. Ask them to take a look at the cost of war, and to explain to you how we’re going to be able to afford this. So there are actually tremendous opportunities out there for all of us to get involved. I know I don’t want to look back and think I didn’t do every thing possible at the time when we really can affect policy. This is not an ideologically driven government the way we had with Bush, so there’s a real chance here to be impactful.

CS: We’ve been speaking with Robert Greenwald. You can find the film and information about how to help, at Thanks again for joining us today on CounterSpin, Robert Greenwald!

RG: My pleasure.