Nancy Gibbs for the Higgy

April 6, 2020

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

A few years ago a friend of mine asked one of the Arizona Republic’s reporters why they were engaging in so much of what many former/potential Republic subscribers regard advocacy journalism. He reported to me that she shrugged her shoulders and said “it wins you awards.”

So it’s bad when newspapers go into full advocacy mode, worse still when folks at an Ivy League University can’t see through their tricks and hand them what perhaps used to be prestigious awards. Recently the Harvard Kennedy School gave the Arizona Republic, USA Today and the Center for Public Integrity an award for Copy, Paste, Legislate. The story made clever use of plagiarism detection software to selectively document the use of model bills by state lawmakers. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) serves as the bete noire in their story. “This fantastic reporting sheds light for the public and local media on the origins of legislation that gets passed in statehouses across the country” the above video proclaims from the judges of the Goldsmith Prize with what sounds like a string quartet playing somber music in the background.

Okay so what should the Harvard folks have been able to see through with this story? Well, not long after the publication of the piece Harvard Kennedy School graduate Pat Wolf noted on twitter:

@USATODAY spreads the deception that copycat legislation is an epidemic. Source of the problem is that @azcentral hid the fact that 99% of the bills they examined were NOT copycats. 1% is a rounding error, not a crisis.

That’s just the beginning of the problems with this story- but it’s a big problem. A few others: Trent England from the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs helpfully noted that model legislation has been around since 1892, and all kinds of groups create model bills. The story authors airbrushed the largest center-left source of model legislation (the National Council of State Legislatures) out of their analysis, comparing the right of center ALEC to a couple of very young and very small progressive model bill groups. TA-DA! Most of the model bills become right wing! If you are keeping score at home, so long as you are willing to ignore the 99% of bills that don’t come from models and also a large majority of groups who do model legislation, this looks scary to a left of center reader.

Unless…unless you pause to think for a moment and realize that model bills go through exactly the same legislative process that any other bill goes through. Either it passes through committees and chambers and receives the assent of the governor, or it doesn’t. Since anyone and everyone can and often do write model bills and they go through the normal democratic process so:

There are other problems, including factual errors which remain uncorrected, which you can read about here. I’ve simply had to accept that much of journalism has gone down the road of overt advocacy. It’s unfortunate, but as the Arizona Republic’s readership has continued to decline they seem to be attempting to play to the predispositions of their remaining subscriber base. It doesn’t seem to be working as a sustainability strategy: Arizona’s population continues to grow, the Republic’s subscriber base continues to shrink and the handwriting is on the wall. As a long time Republic subscriber who admires the work of multiple people at the paper, this is very sad. It feels more than a bit like watching Nick Cage drink himself to death in Leaving Las Vegas.

Which brings us back to the Higgy. “Don’t hate the player, hate the game,” the expression goes. I guess I can’t be too upset with USA Today and the Arizona Republic if they fall prey to the temptation to engage in sensationalism when they get rewarded for it. It would not have been past the analytical powers of a mildly skeptical Harvard sophomore to have spotted the flaws in this reporting, given a study of pluralism and policy diffusion. You know-the kind of things you ought to study at the Harvard Kennedy School as a sophomore. Figuring this out alas seems well beyond the power of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy and their judges. I don’t know a thing about Nancy Gibbs other than what is in the above youtube video, but if newspapers are going to go they should die as they once lived- as something reasonably close to a neutral community institutions. The newspapers have more than enough problems without grandees tempting them to do slanted work with prizes.


Conspiracy Theory Time!

October 2, 2012

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Check out this delicious teacher-blogospheric reaction to Bill Moyers’ new ALEC story:

The education stuff starts at around the 14 minute mark, with the main example being the overthrow public education in Tennessee by a virtual school operator.

What I’ve been too lazy to determine on my own is this: is our new unelected state charter school authority based on an ALEC template? Or is that something that came out of Race to the Top? Or is there even a difference?

ALEC, President Obama’s Education Department – what’s the difference?

Not that there aren’t some real conspiracies. Thankfully, they tend to fail due to their internal contradictions and inability to control their own actors. But these people live in a world where literally everyone is out to get them and there are no other agendas besides teachers versus the world. Wonder how that mindset gets cultivated?


National Standards Shows Cracks

December 5, 2011

Last week the education task force of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) endorsed measures urging states to oppose adoption and implementation of the federally “incentivized” Common Core standards.  According to Catherine Gewertz at Ed Week:

A package of model legislation opposing the common standards gained ground yesterday at the American Legislative Exchange Council.

The organization’s education task force approved the package, we learned from a couple of folks who attended those sessions of ALEC’s meeting this week in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Gewertz added that the measures do not become official ALEC policy until they are approved by the board of directors.  A similar proposal was proposed last summer by members of the education task force but was tabled until the recent meeting.  Allies of Jeb Bush and the long, gilded arm of the Gates Foundation pulled out the stops to block the measure and may yet succeed at the board level.

I fear that even if the measure is approved by ALEC’s board, the battle over adoption may effectively be finished.  An effort to repeal Common Core standards in Alabama failed despite the fact that the governor proposed the repeal and votes on the state board of education.   If you can’t repeal national standards in Alabama under such favorable conditions, it may be very hard to repeal it in any of the other 40-some states that have signed on.

But just because the adoption debate is winding down doesn’t mean the national standards war is over.  Far from it.  So far states have done the costless and non-constraining step of adopting a set of standards.  Once the nationalizers try to make the standards concrete and binding by incorporating them into newly designed high-stakes testing, we are likely to see a lot more resistance.  And adopting those new tests, revising teacher training, professional development, and textbooks to fit the national standards and testing will require considerable effort and expense — causing more states to rethink their initial support for Common Core.

The ALEC anti-Common Core measure will be important for mobilizing opposition as those next hurdles have to be jumped.  Even if the nationalization effort successfully runs this gauntlet, which they may do, the probability that national standards and assessments will actually produce the end goal — significantly improved student achievement over the long term — is near zero.  If nationally setting goals and ordering progress toward those goals were the path to success, the Soviet Gosplans would have produced their economic triumph over the West.  We all know how well that turned out.