Harold Meyerson gets it right!


And then, he gets it wrong: In yesterday’s Washington Post, Harold Meyerson wrote a decent column about the Chicago teachers strike.

As he started, he described the mandated point of view which drives the mainstream press:
MEYERSON (9/20/12): Here’s a bit of advice to America’s teachers: If you want the nation’s opinion leaders and CEOs to like you, don’t congregate in groups. Everyone, it seems, loves teachers individually. But when they get together, they become a menace to civilization.

That’s one of the clearest take-aways from the just-concluded teachers strike in Chicago. Editorial boards from the right-wing Wall Street Journal to the liberal New York Times were nearly unanimous in condemning the seven-day strike. The Chicago Teachers Union was depriving the city’s children of their right to an education not just during the strike, editorialists argued, but also every day—by refusing to bow down to standardized tests. In the eyes of our elites, such tests have emerged as the linchpin of pedagogy and the best way to measure teacher, not just student, performance.

The unrelenting attack on teachers unions has some measurable consequences...
Meyerson is certainly right. Within establishment press corps circles, all knees jerk in mandated ways with regard to public school issues.

Having said that, we’ll pick a nit. Why would Meyerson think this:
MEYERSON: Given what we know about the cost of private schools and the demographics of Chicago’s public schools (87 percent of students come from households below the poverty threshold), it’s safe to say that the school reform movement hasn’t converted many outside the upper middle class. I suspect that a number of parents with kids in the city schools may have a more direct understanding of the challenges, both in school and out, that their children confront, as well as a clearer perception of the lack of resources that bedevil the schools.
Meyerson refers to “what we know about about...the demographics of Chicago’s public schools.” Immediately, he misstates something he thinks we know about those demographics.

No, Virginia! In Chicago’s public schools, 87 percent of students don’t come from poverty households. That’s the percentage of Chicago students who are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.

You don’t have to be below the poverty line to qualify for subsidized lunch. If memory serves, the cut-off point is roughly twice the poverty level.

Two points:

How well do we progressives understand our cities if we think that 87 percent of Chicago students are living below the poverty line? Why do we think such a thing?

How well do we understand American politics if we find ourselves rushing to advance that (politically dangerous) image? Why would we want to say that?

Did the 60s ever end? Black and Hispanic kids aren't making any progress in school! And not only that! They're all living in poverty!

These are the notions our agents advance. What makes us want to do that?

Our Friday soda pop quiz: What percentage of American public school students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch?

Answer: According to federal statistics, 52 percent of fourth-graders so qualified in 2011.

Fifty-two percent is more than half! That isn’t a measure of poverty.


  1. If it's true that 87% of Chicago’s public school students "come from households below the poverty threshold" then I would say that you have an insurmountable problem. Attacking the teachers is a ludicrous response.

    1. Anonymous, Bob's point is that it begs incredulity to even think that 87% of Chicago's school children are at or below the poverty line. Anyone with an ounce of sense would surely pause and wonder if that statistic could possibly be true. The fact that it managed to find its way to print means that the reporter and his editor(s) are relatively clueless about urban schools.

    2. The reporter is clueless, period.

      Meyerson is the same guy who falsely accused Hillary Clinton of "hemming and hawing" when asked by Steve Kroft on 60 Minutes whether she thought Barack Obama was a Muslim.

      Meyerson is the same guy that falsely accused Hillary Clinton of being behind a robo-call extolling the virtues of Barack Obama using an Amos 'n Andy dialect.

      Meyerson is the quintessential hack.

  2. While Bob is correct about the Federal Poverty Level (FPL), FPL does not take into account Food Stamp or other governmental benefits such as Employee Income Tax Credit. When they are taken into account, true poverty turns out to be about twice FPL. Numerous people have worked on a "Self-Sufficiency Standard" -- what it costs to live if govertnment benefits are taken into account, and in most of the US it is 200% of FPL.

    1. "While Bob is correct..." blah, blah, some other stuff that doesn't in any way make Harold Meyerson (or the editors at WaPo) remotely reasonable in saying what he said: "87 percent of students come from households below the poverty threshold."

      Further, what you're saying doesn't make sense:

      "If government benefits are taken into account" those benefits increase people's resources, making it possible to live on a lower income level than would otherwise be true, not a higher level as you suggest.

      Also, Earned Income Tax Credit, not Employee Income Tax Credit.

  3. Somerby says:

    "How well do we progressives understand our cities if we think that 87 percent of Chicago students are living below the poverty line? *Why* do we think such a thing?" ["*"emphasis added]

    "How well do we understand American politics if we find ourselves rushing to advance that (politically dangerous) image? *Why* would we want to say that?" ["*"emphasis added]

    >>> whats the answers to your questions? why would "we" "want to say that" or "think such a thing", assuming we do? it sounds like you have a theory. expose it if you have confidence in it and feel it will assist the american discourse.

    1. I wonder whether you were among those who wanted "The Sopranos" to have a clearly defined ending ("Was Tony Killed?" "Or not?"). Did your teachers at school always give you the answers?
      There is an alternative: Think about it.

      Tweedle Dee

    2. this is a blog about a real life blood and guts society, not a fictional one (isnt it?). so no, there is some other reason for somerby to so often be cryptic. the idea that he is employing a literary device here is just a convenient excuse for something else which is really going on.

      it seems to me that when someone beats around the bush, it may be because he or she doesnt have a cogent thought . . . or he is embarrassed or scared to say what he thinks out loud -- possibly embarrassed or scared even though he truly believes what it is which he wont say.

      or, and this is what i believe to be somnerbys case, he could be leary to let on what he has really been talking about because he doesnt actually believe it himself. ah, but if he can keep the non-fitting final and key piece of the puzzle to himself, he wont then be found out to have been deliberately propagandizing all along. . . . and hopefully for somerby, the reader will self-propagandize in the direction somerby desires -- that tony was not killed, or whatever else somerby may want you to conclude on whatever subject.

      i see somerby as a deeply flawed 'teacher'. he seems incapable of keeping his biases from affecting his thought processes. generally what he says is forced justification of a reverse engineered bias – a bias he consistently conceals to some degree or other.

      his writing reflects a possibly very high level of self involvement . . . which leaves him practically crippled when trying to discover and present the larger picture. . . . alternatively, the biases may not be his alone, but rather a mixture of his and others who he may possibly be in the service of.

      but to give him his due, he is good at what he does, such as it is.


  4. FYI - free lunches are available for incomes below 130% of poverty and reduced price lunches are available for incomes below 185% of poverty. http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2012-03-23/pdf/2012-7036.pdf

    1. And I would argue that a household below 185 percent of the FPL is a "poverty household."

      They sure aren't living like the Romneys.

  5. Eligibility for free and reduced price lunches is a very crude proxy for family income that erases geographical distinctions (Appalachian Ohio versus Harlem) and differences between the chronic poor, working poor and newly poor. Rigorous research uses multiple measures such as actual income, maternal education and occupation, books in the home, etc. to get a more accurate picture of socioeconomic status. Getting it right matters a lot because of the high correlation of student failure with low socioeconomic status. Many states don't even distinguish between free and reduced-price lunches, yet this crude measure is dropped into all kinds of formulas that will determine school and teacher performance. As happens too often in education, we'd rather believe our preconceptions than actually know about the lives of these children. I think Somerby does his greatest service when he writes about education, which is the primary reason I read this blog daily.

  6. It's upsetting how "opinion makers and CEOs" are "everybody" who writes for corporate news. That's nothing close to everybody, or even the whole spectrum.