Epilogue—How well do professors read: The New York Times is conducting a long love affair with the nation’s professors.
Constant reliance on the professors helps establish a basic part of Times Culture. That’s the impression, served to Times readers, that the Times is a very smart paper.
Of course, if the New York Times is a very smart paper, then its readers must be smart too! Relentlessly, the New York Times flatters subscribers with this pleasing idea.
This idea may not be accurate. Again and again, the New York Times publishes bungled work by the nation’s endless assortment of profs. Their work may seem to be very smart—but only if we the readers agree to be somewhat dumb.
What happens when the New York Times succumbs to its jones for the nation’s professors? Consider three letters the great paper published in this Monday’s editions.
On April 28, Stanford professor Sean Reardon had published a long essay in the Sunday Review section. In the main, Reardon’s piece concerned the growing educational gap between the nation’s rich and poor students.
Reardon said this growing gap was fueled by the rapidly rising achievement levels of our high-income students. He suggested that we devote more resources to the nation’s low-income kids right from the earliest days of life, as wealthy parents increasingly do in their own child-rearing practices.
To read Reardon's essay, click here.
Reardon wrote an interesting piece. This Monday, the Times published letters about his piece from three different professors.
This represented classic Timesism. A lofty discussion was under way, right on the letters page!
For purposes of exposition, let’s rearrange the order of these letters. The second professor hailed from NYU. Her letter started this way:
LETTER FROM THE SECOND PROFESSOR: While Sean F. Reardon is to be commended for exposing the growing achievement gap between the poor and the middle classes and the middle and upper classes, his recommendation that as a society we should begin to behave more like the rich in their approach to education ignores the decades’ worth of research that strongly suggests otherwise.Did Reardon “expos[e] the growing achievement gap between the poor and the middle classes?” That is what this professor says.
But is there such a growing gap? If so, did Reardon expose it?
In fact, Reardon speaks, all through his piece, about the growing achievement gap between “the children of the rich” and “children from middle-class or poor families.” He especially focuses on the gap between “rich and poor students.”
He clearly says that the gap between rich and poor students is growing, and he tries to explain why. But he barely mentions the gap which does exist between “between the poor and the middle classes,” and he certainly never says that this gap is growing.
Reardon never says that the gap between the poor and the middle class is growing. Instead, he stresses the fact that rising achievement by the rich is fueling the growth in the gap he is reviewing—the gap between rich and poor.
How strange! Our second professor seemed to have misread Reardon’s piece! But wouldn’t you know it? The first professor, also from NYU, had started in much the same way:
LETTER FROM THE FIRST PROFESSOR: In “No Rich Child Left Behind” (Sunday Review, April 28), Sean F. Reardon reminds us of the growing educational divide not only between the poor and the middle class but increasingly between the middle class and the very rich. Only a significant infusion of federal money for early childhood programs will address this issue.According to this professor’s letter, Reardon’s piece “reminds us of the growing educational divide...between the poor and the middle class.” But is there such a growing divide? Reardon makes no such assertion at any point in his piece. Instead, he discusses the growing divides between the rich and the middle class and between the rich and the poor.
How odd! Both the first and the second professors seemed to misstate Reardon’s work. The third professor, from SUNY Buffalo, provoked brief cheers at the start of his letter. But quite quickly, he too fell apart:
LETTER FROM THE THIRD PROFESSOR: The evidence that rich children do better on achievement tests than poor children is overwhelming. The disparity also holds for children in charter schools.Right in his opening sentence, this professor managed to say that Reardon was discussing the gap between rich and poor children! At this point, the analysts cheered. But just like that, this third letter fell apart.
The data are not in the slick news releases that go to editorial boards, education writers and the mass media. Charter school proponents trumpet “growth,” not that the achievement-test levels of poor and minority students are much lower than those of the rich.
It’s hard to tell just what this professor means, so unclear is his writing. But he seems to complain that charter schools have not been able to erase the achievement gap between rich and poor students.
This is an amazingly silly complaint, the type that only professors can make. It’s the kind of professorial nonsense the New York Times persistently serves to its readers.
Having said this, you’re right! In the case of this third professor, it’s hard to tell just what type of gap he is complaining about. Does he mean that poor and minority students in charter schools score much lower than rich students in those same charter schools? Or does he means that they score much lower than rich students score across the wider society?
There’s no real way to tell from this letter. But whatever he meant, this third professor went on to lambaste Joel Klein, Michelle Rhee and “charter school proponents” in general for failing to engineer an educational miracle—for failing to erase the huge achievement gap between the rich and the poor.
Whatever one thinks of charter schools, that’s an amazingly dumb complaint. That said, it’s par for the course when professors parade in the Times.
Please don’t misunderstand us! In our view, the letters from the first two professors were dumb in various ways, not just in the claim that Reardon “exposed” a growing gap between the poor and the middle class. The first professor went on to hail “compelling research...that shows that having a top-flight teacher year after year dramatically reduces the effect of social class on a child’s achievement.”
Speaking of drama, it’s our impression that this professor is dramatically overstating the findings of that “compelling research”—but when the Times puts professors in print, they will often engage in such conduct, often in service to some belief which is unrelated to the issue under review. The second professor goes off on a similar tangent, shooting down recommendations Reardon never made:
LETTER FROM THE SECOND PROFESSOR: While the rich do invest more in early childhood education, their strategies for raising their children are often based more on outsourcing their child rearing to nannies, tutors, coaches and teachers than on having “stable home environments” and spending time reading to their children, as Mr. Reardon claims.We’re always glad to learn about some professor’s personal research. But Reardon didn’t suggest that poor children should have their child-rearing outsourced to nannies and tutors. This professor showcased her erudition, but her screed had little to do with Reardon’s actual piece.
Suniya Luthar’s research, and that of many others, including my own, finds that adolescents raised in rich families report higher rates of depression, anxiety and substance abuse than those from other socioeconomic groups.
Yes, as a society, we need to invest more in early childhood education, but let’s not use the strategies of the rich to achieve our goals. Let’s borrow those old-fashioned strategies of the working and middle classes that include high-quality, community-based child care centers, sit-down family dinners and stickball street play to help our children succeed in and out of school.
By the way: How much higher are those rates of depression among adolescents raised in rich families? Are they significantly higher? As usual, the prof didn’t say.
On Monday morning, the New York Times published letters from three professors concerning Reardon’s essay. By our count, two of the three misstated the basics of what Reardon said.
The third professor seemed to know what Reardon had said, but he quickly went off on a tangent, making an absurd complaint about the alleged failures of charter schools. It’s hard not to think of the three blind people who famously groped the elephant.
The Times sells this as erudition. In fact, it’s something quite different.
Is that achievement gap actually growing: For extra credit, one final question:
Is there a growing achievement gap between the poor and the middle class? It’s hard to answer that question, which may be why Reardon didn’t try to do so.
The National Assessment of Educational Progress (the NAEP) doesn’t provide data for “rich” and “poor” and “middle class” students. But to the extent that NAEP data can be broken down by family income, those data don’t seem to suggest a growing gap between the poor and the middle class.
Let’s take one example:
In eighth grade math, students who are eligible for free or reduced price lunch saw their average score rise 17 points from 1996 to 2011. (This is not a measure of poverty.) The average score of students who aren’t eligible for free or reduced price lunch went up by 16 points during that period.
Each group is now scoring much higher. In the process, the achievement gap has been reduced, but only by one point.
Professor Reardon didn’t say that this gap is growing. He did offer these observations, which were fairly upbeat:
REARDON (4/28/13): Before we can figure out what's happening here, let's dispel a few myths.“There is no evidence that average test scores have declined over the last three decades for any economic group.” That is fairly upbeat news, though it doesn’t speak to the question raised by Monday’s letters: Is the achievement gap between the poor and the middle class growing?
The income gap in academic achievement is not growing because the test scores of poor students are dropping or because our schools are in decline. In fact, average test scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the so-called Nation's Report Card, have been rising—substantially in math and very slowly in reading—since the 1970s. The average 9-year-old today has math skills equal to those her parents had at age 11, a two-year improvement in a single generation. The gains are not as large in reading and they are not as large for older students, but there is no evidence that average test scores have declined over the last three decades for any age or economic group.
Two professors out of three seemed to think that Reardon said yes. In fact, he said no such thing. But the letters editor didn’t notice, and the letters were thrown into print.
Times readers got the thrill of high erudition—and they got misled in the process. So it goes as the New York Times conducts its great love affair.