Eugene Robinson Live

Apr 02, 2013

Live chat with Eugene Robinson about politics and his latest column.

Submit questions and comments for Gene to respond to now.

Hello, everybody, and welcome to our regular chat. Lots to talk about, and you know the drill, so no preliminaries today. Let's get started.

Great column today. I agree completely that the testing obsession is a big problem. What I don't understand, though: How do we ensure accountability without testing? As much as I dislike standardized tests, I can't think of a better way to measure how well schools perform.

By all means we should do testing. The question is what school districts do with those measurements. If you have a school where scores remain stubbornly low, is it a matter of bad teachers? Inept administration? It could be. But it also might be the case that the teachers and principal are quite competent, and that what's lacking is parental support. Maybe there should be a longer school day for those students. Maybe there should be other counseling interventions and resources. So yes, let's test but let's use that information productively.

Test scores are not the answer, but at some time the left is going to have to wake up and realize that unions are a big problem. Not in the suburban areas as much, but in the poorer areas. DC has had horrible schools for all of my life (30+ years). The wealthy just go to private schools, but the poor are stuck with a failing system and many failing teachers (there are also good teachers too). The unions, as unions do overly protect these teachers. Then we here about some grandiose plan to reform the the school system in 10 years. That doesn't do any good for the kid who is a Freshman now. As long as Dems care more about protecting their union donators, then protecting the kids, they are no better than the people praising standardize testing.

What I don't understand is this: If you abolish the union, you end up with a bunch of teachers who are paid less, receive fewer benefits and have no job security. Then what? How is that supposed to make anything better?

After the horrendous event at Sandy Hook, it appeared that the White House was ready to embark on a relentlous campaign to effect gun control legislation. With national sentiment clearly behind him, President Obama told the country that inaction was not a choice. Months later, nothing has been legislated, the rhetoric has cooled, and same sex marriage, immigration reform and North Korea's saber rattling have taken over the news. Why can't the government push through one problem before turning its attention to the next problem that won't get solved?

Um... What? Oh yeah, I was starting to answer your question but got distracted. Seriously, our national ADHD is not the biggest factor in Congress's failure to act quickly on gun control. It's the pressure applied by the NRA and the rest of the gun lobby. When citizens who support reasonable gun control demonstrate that they will vote on that criterion, we'll get gun control. Let your member of Congress know where you stand. I assure you that's what opponents of gun control are doing.

Even with opinion polls stating that almost 90% of Americans favor universal background checks, it looks like the NRA may be able to block this. Do politicians no longer listen to constituents on this issue. Are they so afraid of the NRA, that they'll ignore the voters that put them in office?

See above. (Believe me, they do listen to constituents. But they don't believe you will condition your vote on their gun control position, and they believe the other side will.)

Hi Eugene -- thanks for taking questions today. What do you make of the almost daily announcement of yet another Democrat (and the occasional Republican) announcing his/her support for same sex marriage? What's the strategy here? Wanting to get on the right side of the issue? Influence the Supreme Court (who, as we all know, doesn't like to be pressured?) Maybe it's just me, but is a backlash just down the road?

I don't think there's any backlash coming, at least not from the public. I think the majority of Americans have made up their minds that there's no reason to stand in the way of gay marriage -- an enormous shift of opinion in a short time. I think politicians calculate that the last holdouts will not be judged kindly by history.

Hi Eugene. I'd like to expand the discussion of your column in today's paper in a couple of "post-amazing results" contexts. First, the implications for students when they reach post-secondary education. I supervise Bachelor and Master of Social Work student interns where I work - people who should be able to think critically, But with some (not all), when I pose questions to them, rather that synthesize information, they tell me they haven't been told in class what to do in that situaion, circumstance etc. I get the impression the general public does not see the long term harm yet in teaching to the test, but we are fast creating a generation of people who can't develop their own answers, only regurgitate. The second piece is this - are we at the same time so hungry for imrpovement that we ignore the obvious signs of dishonest, possibly fraudulent results when people like Michelle Rhee & Beverly Hall "work miracles" we are not immediately suspicious? No matter how good you are, no matter how innovative and positive your ideas, rolling them out in school districts as large as WDC & Atlanta takes years, not weeks. These are truly "Emperor's New Clothes" scenarois, yet no child is declaring the emperor naked.

In my experience, the kids know what's going on. It's adults who delude themselves. And I think you identify an important issue: If you make performance on standardized tests the paramount goal, you end up with students who know how to take a test. Again, I'm not against testing. I think it's vital. But I think testing should be an assessment aid, not a central mission.

as a follow up to my first post, do you think that Michelle Rhee & her administration will be subject to a rigorous (or any) iunvestigation?

You're referring to the statistically anomalous number of wrong-to-right erasures at some D.C. schools while Rhee was chancellor. Rhee's position, as I understand it, is that there has been an investigation that found no wrongdoing. As far as I can tell, there has never been a thorough investigation -- certainly nothing like the one in Atlanta -- and I've seen no indication that such an investigation will be conducted.

Fairfax county doesn't have unions and they have one of the top public school systems in the country. So the idea that a union is the only way to protect teachers and have success doesn't appear to be accurate. There is a direct conflict, at least at the local level when your donations are relatively dependent on a certain group (ie a specific union) and you then have to establish the conditions of their employment and termination. Its not that unions can't exit, but that there needs to be far more checks and balences to ensure the poorest kids recieve a solid education.

Fairfax is one of the wealthiest counties in the nation -- hardly any of those "poorest kids" you're talking about -- and this wealth has much more to do with the school system's achievement than whether or not the teachers are unionized. In fact, the correlation between income and student achievement is undeniable. We don't talk much about it, though.

I'm glad more pols are "coming out" in favor of same-sex marriage. But marriage is one thing - ensuring that couples get the benefits they're entitled to is another. What will it take to make that happen? And do you think that Congress will be the impediment to full equality?

At the federal level, that's what the DOMA case before the Supreme Court is all about. At the state level, the fight by same-sex couples for marital status and benefits will go on for some time -- unless, and I guess this is unlikely, the Supreme Court recognizes a constitutional right that supercedes state laws.

The Supremes might not like to be pressured, but I don't think any of them want to be Justice Taney in future history books, either. They'll find a way to give equal protection under a nod, even if they only kick it back to the states.

I agree about how the Roberts Court wants to be judged by history. Smart money  says, though, that they won't find an equal protection rationale for invalidating DOMA because that could end the argument before the political process has run its course blah blah blah. I think the argument is done and there's no need to pretend otherwise -- 80 percent of adults under 30 approve of gay marriage, according to a recent Post poll. You can't get 80 percent agreement that the sky is blue. 

Connecticut is poised to pass the strongest gun control measures in the U.S. with even broad Republican support! Do you think the reason that the Connecticut Legislature was able to what Congress could not is because the NRA has little presence in Canada? Do you think the NRA's money means more to Congress than children's lives? (BTW...this is NOT a partisan issue, entirely. Harry Reid actually has a "B" rating from the NRA--perhaps, another reason, Congress is doing little.)

Connecticut is home to a number of gun manufacturers, in fact. Sadly, I believe the legislation is sailing through because Connecticut is also home to Newtown. As for Sen. Reid's views, ask him. That's what I intend to do.

The reason people don't talk about it is because they fear being called a racist. In the inner-city you are lead to believe via the culture that academics are not "cool". Instead of studying and reading a book you're fed stories that playing basketball or slinging "rock" will get you out. Also the lack of a father figure for these "youths" doesn't help

The "cultural" stuff gets talked about all the time. What doesn't get talked about is income.

The anti-gun control folks like to assert that gun control doesn't work, but obviously it does work. There are all sorts of weapons that are not available to civilians (fully automatic weapons, hand granades, etc...) You never hear about those weapons being used mass killings here in the states. The killers choose the easily available weapons.

You make a very good point. If fully automatic rifles could be purchased legally, don't you think these massacre killers would use them? I do. If you could pick up Stinger missiles at the Wal-Mart, don't you think drug dealers would be firing them at each other? I do. It is self-evident that gun control does work.

A number of folks in the chat area (myself included) noted that improving learning outcomes is a difficult and complex issue. We have tried money, computers and Standardized tests and none of them get the the root causes of failure that are mostly outside of the classroom. Two questions? Do you feel that the entire testing idea is flawed? Do you have any sense of what might work?

I, too, believe that the root causes of failure are mostly -- not entirely, but mostly -- outside of the classroom. It really does take a village, starting with the parents. Trying to decide where to begin can be paralyzing, so I think you just have to start somewhere. Housing. Nutrition. Health care. Career counseling. After-school jobs. Vocational ed. Criminal justice policy. We might not be able to work on all the issues at once, but that's no excuse for not working on any of them. And did I mention the very, very strong correlation between household income and student achievement?


That's all for today, folks. My time is up. See you again next week!

In This Chat
Eugene Robinson
Eugene Robinson is an Associate Editor and twice-weekly columnist for The Washington Post. His column appears on Tuesdays and Fridays. In a 25-year career at The Post, Robinson has been city hall reporter, city editor, foreign correspondent in Buenos Aires and London, foreign editor, and assistant managing editor in charge of the paper's award-winning Style section. In 2005, he started writing a column for the Op-Ed page. He is the author of "Coal to Cream: A Black Man's Journey Beyond Color to an Affirmation of Race" (1999) and "Last Dance in Havana" (2004). Robinson is a member of the National Association of Black Journalists and has received numerous journalism awards.
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