Part 2—Gail Collins leaves no joke behind: About twenty percent of Gail Collins' new book is devoted to the Texas public schools, a topic she seems to know little about.
It’s much as some reviewers said (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/18/12). Her work on the Texas schools is full of “jokey asides”—jokey asides which drive her “wisecracking polemical style.”
And alas! Collins’ work on the Texas schools is also characterized by the leaps of logic about which major reviewers complained. To all appearances, the jokey asides and the logical leaps help Collins drive a polemical agenda, in which Texas schools have gone from horrendous to merely bad, with the improvements stemming from additional spending—not from the “testing mania” she associates with George Bush and No Child Left Behind.
What is the current state of the Texas schools? Such questions aren’t easy to answer, but Collins makes virtually no attempt to examine the relevant data. When she does cite those most relevant data, she cherry-picks in egregious ways, or she simply misstates what the data say. In the process, readers are misinformed and misled about the current state of the data, imperfect as those data will inevitably be.
Collins misuses the children well. Her performance can only be called a journalistic scam.
In part 3, we’ll look at Collins’ feigned attempt to assess the current state of the Texas schools. For today, let’s examine some of the bungled history she offers, in which she pretends to walk us through the development of Lone Star schools from the 1940s on.
The jokey asides are plentiful, along with apparent errors. The tolerance for imprecision is vast, as in this typical passage:
COLLINS (page 78): During the last half of the 1990s, Texas schools did get better. It was very, very hard to figure exactly how much better, given the amount of conflicting data floating around, but some observers were wowed by how well the students were testing. (“I couldn’t believe it,” said David Grissmer, who wrote or co-wrote several important education studies on the state.) Some were just prepared to thank God for small favors. (Molly Ivins called it the “story on how our schools rocketed from abysmal to only slightly below average in a mere thirty years.”) The doubters would be empowered later, when reporters discovered that in some places the results had been, shall we say, rigged.This passage is striking in several ways. According to Collins, Texas schools got better during this period—she just can’t tell how much. According to Collins, the improvement may have been huge or it may have been modest. But it had nothing to do with George Bush!
Whether the lift was huge or modest, it had very little to do with George W. Bush, whose role as governor was to arrive at the party after the refreshments had been served and the orchestra had finished its first set.
This reflects Collins’ claim that the important reforms in Texas schools were set in place before Bush took office—and that the important reforms had nothing to do with testing. She makes little attempt to support these claims, although the jokes never stop.
Question: If we can’t tell how much improvement occurred, why should we be so sure that any improvement occurred at all? Collins relies on the kindness of strangers, assuming that her experts, Grissmer and Ivins included, must be pretty much right.
This leads us to a striking example of Collins’ intellectual sloth.
According to Collins, it’s “very, very hard” to figure how much the Texas schools improved during the 1990s. This is strange, because the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) began assembling data for Texas in 1990.
Collins, along with the rest of the world, has said that these are the most reliable educational data we have. She cites NAEP data in her book. She praised them as the most reliable data in a subsequent column.
Is it “very, very hard” to figure how much better the Texas schools got during the period Collins cites? It certainly is—if you try to figure it out in your head or by quoting Ivins’ columns! On the other hand, anyone who cares about such questions can review the NAEP data for this period.
If she does, she will observe the giant gains in eighth grade math scores achieved by black kids and Hispanic kids in Texas during this decade. And she could see something else in those most reliable data. She could see that, by 2000, black and Hispanic kids in Texas were outscoring their peers nationwide by very substantial margins. This represented a large improvement from their status in 1990.
In 2000, Ivins wrote that the Texas schools had gone “from abysmal to below average.” Twelve years later, in her wisecracking book, Collins still seemed to believe that this wisecracking assessment was right.
On-line, it takes about sixty seconds to access the most reliable data for the period Collins cited. We’re comparing the 1990 NAEP scores to those from the year 2000. Intermediate years could be reviewed too.
(To access the NAEP Data Explorer, just click here, then click on MAIN NDE. After that, you’re on your own.)
The most reliable educational data were already being assembled for Texas by 1990. But Collins doesn’t seem to know this, even as she writes three breezy, wisecracking chapters about the Texas schools.
But then, Collins seems to know very little about public schools, except for the scripts which are required to act out her narrow agenda. Reading her attempt to record the history of the Texas schools, we were struck, several times, by the way she quoted political figures who seemed to have no idea about the way public schools function.
Collins never notes their cluelessness. Happily, their stated views always align with her outlook.
According to Collins, Texas schools began to improve after 1983, due to two reform pushes. She insists that any improvements happened because of increased spending, not because the Texas schools turned to the “testing mania” which, as she correctly notes, was occurring in other states during the 1990s. (Texas didn't invent this.)
Can we talk? Collins has no way of knowing what produced the presumed improvements in Texas schools. She simply asserts her preferred conclusion, in which any such improvements occurred because of increased spending, not because of testing and accountability procedures.
She offers no evidence that her claims are true. But then, she doesn’t even seem to know that NAEP data were already being assembled as of 1990—data which would help her track the improvement in the Texas schools.
When it comes to public schools, Collins rarely seems to know what she’s talking about. More than that, she seems preternaturally lazy; she seems to have made every effort to avoid doing any real research. She assembles her jokes and she pimps her agenda. But she doesn’t care enough about Texas kids to engage in sixty seconds of clicks.
Those clicks suggest that the wisecracking Ivins may have been somewhat misinformed too.
According to the most reliable data, black kids in Texas were making great strides from 1990 to 2000. Why did that happen? Like Collins, we can’t say. But Collins doesn’t even seem to know that these data exist.
In all honesty, Collins seems to have little real interest in the children of Texas. Collins misuses those children well all through her breezy, wise-cracking book—a book which becomes an act of fraud when she quotes Diane Ravitch.
Tomorrow: Journalistic fraud