Thursday, September 28, 2006

Paron and the Propagandist

Identifying Victims as Targets for Scorn

Marty Strange
Policy Director
Rural School and Community Trust

Published on line at

September 27, 2006

Paul Greenberg’s been getting some mail. And he doesn’t like it.

The editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette said in a Sunday editorial (September 24, 2006) that he had been sent about a “zillion” copies of an article appearing on this Blog (“Facts are stubborn things, Mr. Greenberg,” posted September 8, 2006).

The article chided Greenberg for not leveling with Arkansans about the facts surrounding the closing of Paron High School. Paron High was forced to close after it was annexed by neighboring Bryant School District. The excuse Bryant gave for the closure was that Paron allegedly was unable to teach all of the 38 courses Arkansas high schools are required to teach each year.

Our article recited a pile of facts about the good performance of Paron students and about the circumstances surrounding the school’s efforts to teach journalism, one of the 38 required courses. Those facts were repeated by many writers who sent letters to the editor as well as emails to the Democrat-Gazette editorial page.

(THIS ARTICLE RATES AS A "MUST READ". Please click "Thursday" below and scroll down for rest of article.)


Blogger Mark Moore (Moderator) said...

And Mr. Greenberg feels beleaguered and besieged by all this email. I doubt he got a zillion, but any number might have been a bit much for him.

He’s not used to seeing in print opinions he doesn’t agree with, unless he approves publishing them. As editorial page editor of one of the few remaining statewide newspapers with a near monopoly on daily print news and opinion, he has more control than anyone over whose views are fit to print. His views, of course, get daily circulation to over 175,000 readers on weekdays, over 280,000 on Sunday. It’s hard to think of him as drowned out by email.

Anyway, he was feeling a lot better when he wrote Sunday’s editorial because he had a real winner. In that pile of facts we documented about Paron, Greenberg triumphantly found a single one that he could dispute.

Seems that Paron students’ college remediation rate is not zero as we reported. He admits that the web site of the state department of education – where we got our information – says it is zero. But the department, whose every decision to close a rural school Greenberg defends -- was wrong. At least according to Greenberg’s buddies in a University of Arkansas data center that helps the state education department collect and report data on school performance.

They told Greenberg that Paron’s remediation rate was not accurately reported on the state department’s website because the number of Paron students requiring remediation was so small that it is not reported. The website says “0” students required remediation when in reality, Greenberg’s university buddies told him, two students required remediation. Greenberg describes their analysis as “heavy number lifting.”

Never mind for the moment that this university agency is now leaking inside information about individual student performances that they are not supposed to disclose. Never mind that they are doing it to boost a political opinion writer who supports heavy-handed methods of closing rural schools. And never mind that remediation rates only reflect the performance of graduates who attend public institutions within Arkansas, not the students who attend private colleges and universities that are harder to get into.

And while you’re being generous, also never mind the fact that the reason the state does not disclose remediation rates for schools where the number requiring remediation is fewer than 10 – apart from the need to protect student privacy -- is because the sample size is too small to draw valid conclusions about the school’s performance.

And that means that any reported remediation rate at Paron is virtually useless for evaluating the school’s performance.

So we’ll call it a draw on remediation.

But please, while you are never-minding these bothersome facts about Greenberg’s remediation rant, don’t be so generous with him that you ignore the elephant sitting on his keyboard. While he runs on and on about whether it was 0 or two kids requiring remediation, he remains utterly silent on all of the other evidence about Paron’s academic performance. That’s because he has no bone to pick with these facts:

* In 2005, on every state mandated test in every high school grade, Paron outscored the state average. Same thing with the end-of -course tests for Algebra I and Geometry.

* Fewer Paron kids scored below “basic,” the lowest score on state tests, than did kids from the rest of the state, on average.

* On the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, a test that ranks kids against their peers nationwide, Paron outscored the national average. And it outscored the Arkansas average, usually by 5-10 points, depending on the grade and the subject tested.

* Paron student’s composite score on the ACT college entrance exam was 21. The state average was 20.5. Bryant district was 19.8.

* Paron’s dropout rate was 1.7%. Graduation rate was 89.6%. Bryant drops out 3% a year, and graduates 84.5%.

Scoreboard: Paron 5, Greenberg 0, and 1 draw.

The overwhelming weight of the evidence is that the Bryant district, with the help of a conniving state department of education, has closed a better-than-average school on the thin excuse that it is alleged not to have taught journalism.

I say “alleged” because while Mr. Greenberg incessantly makes the point that Paron could not teach all 38 required courses, the fact is that all 38 courses, including journalism, were being taught at Paron High School when the Bryant district decided to close it. Journalism was being taught by a teacher with a Master’s degree who was certified to teach English, Advanced Placement English, drama, and speech. She was not separately certified to teach journalism, but she had been granted a waiver by the state department so she could teach journalism.

Paron was 38-course compliant. So what’s the beef?

When Bryant decided to close Paron -- to save money, by the way, not to teach journalism -- Paron appealed to the state board of education, a body that has never seen a small school it didn’t want to close. And just four days before Paron was due to have a hearing before that board, the state department of education cynically withdrew the journalism teacher’s waiver, without explanation. And four days later, Bryant used the lack of a certified journalism teacher as a defense of its decision to close Paron.

Mr. Greenberg’s inside information may have given him a chance to gloat about remediation rates, but that is only because he hopes to cover up the undisputed truths about Paron. Like how well Paron students test. How many graduate. And how ugly the steps taken to close the school really were.

But ugly as that process was, it can’t hold a candle to the ugliness of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s editorial disrespect for rural people who want to save their schools.

Greenberg sneers at what he calls these “Paronistas.” He repeatedly uses this fabricated cultural slur to refer both to the parents at Paron High School who are fighting to keep it open, and more broadly, to all rural Arkansans who want to keep and improve their small community schools. He used it three times in Sunday’s editorial alone.

By labeling them with this pseudo Latin American slur, Greenberg is suggesting that rural school advocates are an embattled backward resistance movement, a threat to law and order, a dangerous element that borders on the guerilla side of resistance, as in “terrorist.”

Labeling people this way targets them for scorn, if not hatred. Scorn is, after all, the mother’s milk of hatred.

These are the tools of the propagandist. True, some of the editorial tactics Greenberg uses are merely petty, but some come right out of the playbook of the most irresponsible political propagandists.

Propagandists have long known that you can divert political attention away from bad policies by identifying the victims of those policies as targets for scorn and branding them with distinctive slurs.

Demonizing the victim can stampede the public into favoring policies that would otherwise be unacceptable.

Sometimes this is done for corrupt or evil purposes. Sometimes it is merely done pathetically in the name of progress. Granted, the Democrat-Gazette editorials are more pathetic than evil.

But propaganda is propaganda, whether it claims to defend progress or not. And what Greenberg is doing is propagandizing for state policies aimed at separating rural people from their schools.

He uses trumped up allegations about curriculum standards to draw attention away from boneheaded bureaucratic and political decisions to close small schools no matter how good they are, and then invents names suggesting lawlessness to pin on those who want to save their schools from this nonsense.

The propagandist’s fingerprints are everywhere in these editorials.

Greenberg blames the victims for being deceived by erroneous information issued by the very state agency whose heavy-handed ways he defends. He maligns those he targets for scorn with repeated malicious slurs. He selectively relies on facts that divert attention from the agenda he trumpets.

And that agenda is the dismantling of Arkansas’ rural community schools. Paron is an embarrassment to this agenda precisely because it defies the image state officials and the Democrat-Gazette have cultivated of small schools as bad schools that need to be closed.

Make no bones about it, there clearly are struggling small schools in Arkansas, or more precisely, schools that have never had a chance to be good schools because, as the Arkansas Supreme Court put it plainly, they have not been adequately or equitably funded.

Come to think of it, there are some struggling big schools in Arkansas, too. But they are now getting a chance to be better with adequate funding.

Can all of Arkansas’ small rural schools, given proper funding, become good schools if they are run by the communities they serve?

Paul Greenberg doesn’t think so. And neither do some other powerful people, who may use terms like “those people” instead of Greenberg’s “Paronistas.” They don’t think parents and communities should have a say in their children’s education. They don’t think “those people” are capable of running good schools democratically.

They have a right to think that way. And to talk and write that way. And to vote that way.

But a lot of people in rural Arkansas do think they can run good schools close to home for their kids. A lot of people don’t think that arbitrarily closing schools because they are small is smart.

A lot of people – in Little Rock as well as rural Arkansas – don’t think that putting kids on a bus for three hours every day is a program for excellence in education.

And a lot of people don’t like demonizing good people who care about their kids just because they don’t agree with state officials who want to close their schools.

At the heart of every propagandist is a wretched coward who fears those he misleads as much as those he maligns. What he fears most, of course, is the truth. Because it is the truth that threatens to unite those he misleads with those he maligns. And truth has a troublesome way of percolating to the surface through the sludge of the propagandist’s half-truths, disinformation, and distortions.

10:58 AM, September 28, 2006  

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