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OPINION: The Art of Emphasis

What are you reading?


There is frequently a perception that news can be objective, that facts are facts and spin is the province of politicians and, perhaps, Fox News. To a certain extent, this is true; the base facts of a story are bedrock, beyond which further fracking has no yield. How those facts are presented, though, how they are ordered and emphasized, can effectively prime our perception of a given story.

A recent Baltimore Sun story boasted an attention-grabbing headline: “Howard school board to give Foose up to $25,000 in relocation costs.”

Below, the subhead (aka dek, in newspeak): “New superintendent is moving from bordering Frederick County.”

Taken together, these phrases seem designed to provoke. A quick read, the skimming attention usually granted to headlines, tells the reader that the incoming superintendent is getting half an average American’s yearly income to move from next door.

Hidden quietly, though, genially modifying, is the unassuming prepositional function words “up to,” as in “$25,000 is the upper limit Foose could receive.” (Not as in “I wonder what this article is up to.”)

It’s not until the sixth paragraph that the reader learns that Ms. Foose will only be reimbursed for costs actually incurred in moving, and that the Board of Education has oversight, approving application of taxpayer dollars to any expense.

I suppose Foose could cobble together a chain of quasi-licit receipts totaling some absurd amount, but I would suspect if the Howard County ends up spending tens of thousands of dollars to move one woman 30 miles, our problems are going to be an order of magnitude greater when that woman takes up residence and the reins of a near $700 million budget.

The Howard County Public School System budget, in fact, rivals the market capitalization of a surging Barnes and Noble. The book seller’s CEO, by the by, earned $1.6 million in fiscal year 2011. Feigned outrage over our superintendent’s salary, and comparatively meager bennies, seems a bit misplaced, at best; if anything, compared to her private sector compatriots, Foose can only shake her head ruefully at the cost of dedicating her life to education.

We tend to think that we are who we believe ourselves to be, but this is infrequently the case. We are, instead, how others perceive us to be, how they observe us in our actions and our speech. The best we can hope for is to emphasize those parts of ourselves we prefer, and hope the rest goes unnoticed. We’re constantly looking for that verbal pair of jeans that fits us just so, accentuating the good and camouflaging the bad. We emphasize what we want to draw attention to.

Perhaps in Howard County, staid and steady as it is, the reverse quietly becomes true. In a community where a becomes front-page news, controversy can be tough to come by. The best we can hope for is a grocer to set up a shell corporation in an attempt to evade archaic blue laws and provide convenience to consumers, but what are the chances of that actually happening?

In absence of actual uproar, in a place where impeached elected officials are duly voted out by a dutiful electorate and tax raises quietly to by a willing base, nuanced shading and enhanced emphasis is the only tool left to possibly raise a political pulse.

A recent tweet from David Frum posited “successful political systems are (and should be) boring.” I couldn’t help but think of Howard County where, by most measures, we’re equally successful…and boring. Perhaps, than, an emphatic headline gives us something to discuss while we’re in line for wine at Wegman’s.

BOH May 17, 2012 at 09:18 PM
Jack, here's a bit of research I did on HCPSS for personal correspondence. HCPSS's 2010-2011 5yr. cohort graduation rate was 90.9% (4yr. of 89.5%), compared to 84.6% for MD and about 72% nationwide. 90.6% of 2011 HCPSS graduates enrolled in college (26.6% juco, 64% university). I can't find statewide or MoCo data on that. HCPSS had 44 National Merit Scholar semfinalists, of which 33 were finalists. That means that 0.824% of the 4004 students became finalists. For comparison, the 2011 national rate was just 0.467% (15,283 out of approx. 3.3 million graduates). On that note, the 44 HCPSS NMS semifinalists constituted 13.5% of the state's total of 327, despite being only 6.8% of the state's graduating class. Doubling the national NMS finalist and state NMS semifinalist rates is impressive, especially considering that each state has its own PSAT cutoff score for finalist selection, and that Maryland's cutoff ties with California (221) for third behind NJ and Mass (223) for the highest in the nation. I have more data crunched on AP and SAT/ACT scores, but need to do a little more analysis before posting. I will say that they generally give very similar pictures to what the PSAT/NMSQT data show. The reality is that HCPSS students consistently have superior access to and scores on such tests. I know your focus was on students who need remedial study in college, but I'm not sure the methodology's sound nor data inclusive enough for you to conclude what you have so far.
Jack May 18, 2012 at 05:33 AM
BOH, What happens to the numbers when you isolate them to only affluent areas whether nationally, in state or by school ? Want to bet there is little difference? Actually we could group them by any metric and find there is no difference within. Do we want to look at similarities of students attending a 2 year institution compared to those attending a 4 year? So to answer your question, I am looking at the difference as well as similarities between other institutions. Looking at indicators such as the SAT/ACT and others. Looking at factors such as extra-curricular, inclusion, other life experiences such as being afforded more outside experiences as well in regard to success. Remedial ed reflects on K-12 as being unprepared academically is constant. There are a large number of students who drop out of 4 years and return to a 2 year for a number of reasons beyond inadequate accedemic ability albeit this still reflects on the K-12 because they were unprepared socially but appear eventually as graduates is constant. Still, graduate-dropout-transfer we still end with a significant loss who also lack marketable skills. HCPSS does not look at their product once it walks across the stage.
Jack May 18, 2012 at 05:46 AM
BOH, "I know your focus was on students who need remedial study in college, but I'm not sure the methodology's sound nor data inclusive enough for you to conclude what you have so far." I am looking at numbers in the 90% range offered by the hcpss which are misleading by themselves. Since K thru 12 shows consistantly in the upper range the step from K-12 to K-13 should maintain a success rate of 90%. However the significant drop after K-12 indicates the value by which the hcpss rated their product has been manipulated.
BOH June 19, 2012 at 03:18 PM
Look, it's really hard to seriously heed the words of a person who can't spell "academic" correctly. And no, dropping out of 4yr. institutions to return to 2yr. programs does not necessarily reflect on K-12 preparation. If you believe it does, then you must believe it is the responsibility of K-12 schools to take on not merely education, but the whole-child preparatory process, which would be a policy doomed for failure. It completely ignores the onus that is on parents. Yes, many parents fail their kids, and to the extent possible, it's great that some teachers are able to compensate for that, but that does not make it the schools' responsibility to replace parenting. Parents, not schools, are responsible for children's psychological, emotional, and social development, although both HoCo and HCPSS have social services to support and augment such parental efforts. Don't blame HCPSS for parental failures, because in addition to doing its job (education), it's also going above and beyond by helping kids overcome bad parenting. When the district fails to give children educational opportunity, which is something every single student has, then blame the district. One of my children just finished first grade at arguably HCPSS' lowest-performing elementary school (Cradlerock), but her parents ensure she goes to school with complete and checked homework every day. Several of her friends usually don't, and perform poorly as a result. That's their parents' fault, not the district's.
BOH June 19, 2012 at 03:20 PM
How does it indicate that? Where are you seeing that there is a significant drop between 12 and 13, and how does that compare to drops by students at schools coming out of other districts that perform in that 90% range? There are many other possible causal factors besides the malfeasant manipulation you're alleging, and to be honest, that's a bit slanderous.

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