Part 4—Paul Krugman's search for the experts: New years often start like old years.
So it was in today’s New York Times, with an awful, horrible, no-good column by feckless Joe Nocera.
To all appearances, Nocera knows nothing about public schools. There’s no reason why he should, of course; no one can be expected to know about every major topic. But for at least the past forty years, reporters and columnists have churned a familiar brand of pap about the schools low-income kids attend. There’s no sign they’ll ever stop:
NOCERA (1/3/12): The Central Falls SuccessHas Central Falls produced a “dramatic” “success?” In today’s 826 words, we find no sign that Nocera knows. Or that he actually cares.
Central Falls, R.I., is a speck of a city, one square mile of triple-decker houses and tired storefronts a few miles up the road from the state capital, Providence. It is the poorest city in Rhode Island, with 27 percent of its residents below the poverty line, according to the Census Bureau. Earlier this year, it started bankruptcy proceedings. Its mayor, who is the subject of a state police investigation, has been pushed aside in favor of a receiver, who has taken control of the city’s finances.
Central Falls, though, also has one of the most promising reading experiments in the country. The Learning Community, a local charter school, and the Central Falls public elementary schools have joined forces in a collaboration that has resulted in dramatic improvements in the reading scores of the public schoolchildren from kindergarten to grade 2. Given the mistrust of charter schools by public schoolteachers, creating this collaboration was no small feat. And while the city’s bankruptcy now threatens it, the Central Falls experiment not only needs to be preserved, it should be replicated across the country. I haven’t seen anything that makes more sense.
When people care about a topic, do they churn familiar pap of this type? Given the state of our nation’s “expert” “elites,” the answer may be yes.
What’s wrong with Nocera’s column? He produces a very familiar tale, in which a few wonderful people produce a dramatic success in some low-income school or schools. Pundits have produced these feel-good, fly-by reports for lo, these many years. So have Hollywood studios.
Sadly, though, there is no sign that Nocera knows if Central Falls has produced a success at all, let alone a dramatic success. In this passage which follows, he describes the work of Meg O’Leary and Sarah Friedman, co-founders of that charter school, The Learning Community. Nothing we say is intended to denigrate their work:
NOCERA: In setting up The Learning Community, O’Leary and Friedman wanted to apply the best practices they had learned during the Providence project—and, eventually, to use their knowledge to help public school districts in Rhode Island.Nocera doesn’t seem to think much of black kids—or of black folk in general. In the highlighted passage, he expresses surprise that black kids with ambitious parents who seek better schools for their kids do somewhat better in school than black kids who lack that advantage. When you read a passage like that, the writer is actually saying this: Those black children are all alike! It’s always surprising when some of “those children” do somewhat better in school!
They got their chance in 2007, when Frances Gallo became the Central Falls Schools superintendent. After she got the job, Gallo stopped in on several families just as they had learned that their children had won a spot (via lottery) in The Learning Community. “They were so excited,” recalls Gallo. She wanted to understand why.
So Gallo began spending time at The Learning Community—where she, too, became excited. The school drew from the same population as the public schools. It had the same relatively large class sizes. It did not screen out students with learning disabilities. Yet the percentage of students who read at or above their grade level was significantly higher than the public school students. When Gallo asked O’Leary and Friedman if they would apply their methods to the public schools, they jumped at it.
By the way—now that O’Leary and Friedman are working with schools in Central Falls, how well have kids in that city done? More specifically, how “dramatic” are the “improvements in the reading scores...from kindergarten to grade 2?” Nocera never bothers to tell you. Instead, he pimps you this:
NOCERA (continuing directly): Did everything go smoothly at first? Not even close. “At first it was, ‘Oh, here comes another initiative,’ ” recalls Friedman. There were plenty of “venting” sessions at the beginning, along with both resentment and resistance. But The Learning Community invited the teachers to visit its classrooms, where the public school teachers saw the same thing Gallo had seen. And very quickly they also began to see results. Most public schoolteachers yearn to see their students succeed—just like charter schoolteachers do. Most of the resistance melted away.“Very quickly,” teachers in Central Falls “began to see results.” But what sorts of results did they quickly see? How big were those instant results? Nocera is too lazy to say, despite the fact that he typically writes about fields which are organized around numbers and measurement. Does he know how big the alleged results are? We have no idea.
We’ve read columns like this one for decades. Such columns should be rejected as disgusting, preferably by editors as they refuse to publish them. Soon, Nocera is congratulating advisers from The Learning Community because they “haven’t just done a fly-by” in their work with the Central Falls schools. But that is precisely what Nocera has done! He has done a very familiar fly-by, of the type his class has produced since the late 1960s.
By the way, his column features a warm, happy ending. That’s what this familiar pap has always been about.
People like Nocera are very bad people—or maybe they’re just too dumb to know better. This brings us to a series of texts Paul Krugman produced in the last year—a series of texts he extended in Monday’s column, which rang in the new year.
Krugman didn’t write about schools. Sticking to topics he knows about, he discussed a different topic. But our analysts cheered and cheered as the gentleman took a key step—as he put a key word inside scare quotes:
KRUGMAN (1/2/12): [W]hen people in D.C. talk about deficits and debt, by and large they have no idea what they’re talking about—and the people who talk the most understand the least.Lustily, our analysts cheered as Krugman slipped the word “experts” inside quotes. But this is a story he puzzled out all through the past year, as he marveled, again and again, at the strange incompetence of the world’s economic “experts.”
Perhaps most obviously, the economic “experts” on whom much of Congress relies have been repeatedly, utterly wrong about the short-run effects of budget deficits. People who get their economic analysis from the likes of the Heritage Foundation have been waiting ever since President Obama took office for budget deficits to send interest rates soaring. Any day now!
And while they’ve been waiting, those rates have dropped to historical lows. You might think that this would make politicians question their choice of experts—that is, you might think that if you didn’t know anything about our postmodern, fact-free politics.
In some columns and blog posts, Krugman has suggested that these “experts” are simply being dishonest, in service to plutocrat preferences. But in other offerings, he has suggested something much more confounding—he has suggested that these “experts” simply don’t understand the basics of their craft! We’ve been fascinated to see Krugman puzzle this out, because it’s a puzzle we came to long ago concerning our “educational experts.” Here at the incomparable DAILY HOWLER, we began putting those words inside quotes quite a few years ago.
Nocera isn’t an educational expert; he’s just a columnist typing up what the “experts” tell him. Such work is found throughout the press. But how to explain the bungled work of the various “experts” to whom these pundits turn?
For us, the past year was mainly about the rise of the tribal—and especially, about the taste for tribal play which took hold within our own tribe. The year was about the way our tribe established cable nitwits as our intellectual leaders, as the right did decades ago. For us, Rachel Maddow tends to be the most striking example, for a wide array of reasons. For you, results may differ.
For us, the past year was also about the way our tribe learned to love playing our various race cards. Do we know any other moves? Quite often, it seems we do not.
But in part, the past year was also about a conundrum Krugman has begun to explore. In various areas, how can our “experts” know so little? Because if our “experts” are really this clueless, we’re all out here on our own.
In the world of public schools, this syndrome is truly amazing. Everyone vouches for the NAEP—and no one reports what the NAEP data show! We live at the end of a long hall of mirrors. If you find your way out of that hall, you may find yourself all alone.
Final note: Has Central Falls achieved a dramatic success? Like you, we don't know.