Epilogue—“An analysis by the New York Times” of Queen City public schools: What does intellectual paralysis look like, in its purest form?
Put it another way: How deeply pre-human are the elites who drive our intellectual culture? How deeply pre-human are this nation’s “journalistic” elites?
Consider the lengthy news report which appears in today’s New York Times. The piece runs more than 1500 words. Its headline announces this:
“Candidates for Mayor See Cincinnati as a Model for Schools in New York”
Reports like this have appeared in the upper-end press corps for at least the last fifty years. Punishingly, they show us how primitive our nation is, the depth of our mental paralysis.
We’ll focus on three parts of the report by Javier Hernandez. (As a courtesy, we’ll assume that the groaners which litter the piece were put in place by his unnamed editor.) We’ll start with Hernandez’s current description of the new test scores announced in New York last week.
What you see below is egregious work, designed to create confusion. As a courtesy, we’ll assume this formulation came from an unnamed editor:
HERNANDEZ (8/12/3): Even before New York reported a drastic drop in reading and math scores last week on new exams aligned with tougher standards known as Common Core, the [New York City mayoral] candidates were promoting the Cincinnati model on the campaign trail.What is “the Cincinnati model?” We’ll get to that quite quickly. But for starters, note the way Hernandez is now describing the new test scores which were released last week.
Hernandez is now saying that “a drastic drop in reading and math scores” was reported last week in New York. This drastic drop occurred “on new exams aligned with tougher standards.”
Very few readers will know what that last word jumble means. Here you see a grossly misleading statement transformed into English:
What Hernandez’ editor wrote: “New York reported a drastic drop in reading and math scores last week on new exams aligned with tougher standards.”In a rational world, journalists would try to counteract basic confusion about such matters. In this case, the Times keeps promoting confusion. This horrible newspaper keeps suggesting that some “drastic drop” in test scores occurred, although there was no drop in scores at all in any meaningful sense.
What that jumble means in English: Passing rates were substantially lower, just as predicted, on a new set of tests which were much more difficult.
(In large part, this confusion is created by the use of mumbo-jumbo about “exams aligned with tougher standards.” No one who speaks everyday English has any idea what that five-word salad means. Many readers will come away with the impression that students performed less well this year, “drastically” so in fact. In fact, there is no way to compare this year’s student performance to that of last year.)
At a competent journalistic entity, an editor who published that language would have his ascot fired. But to understand how paralyzed your floundering culture actually is, consider the way Hernandez opened his lengthy report.
Hernandez is reporting what mayoral candidates think about New York City's schools. Beyond that, he is reporting their excitement about a new public school model.
News reports have started this way for at least the past fifty years. We are cursed with gullible elites and with a press corps which is unable to function:
HERNANDEZ: Candidates for Mayor See Cincinnati as a Model for Schools in New YorkHernandez’s overall reporting today is awful. But in this opening, we read a type of report which has been appearing in major newspapers since Native Americans sold rights to Manhattan for a handful of beads, since de Leon went galloping off in search of the fountain of youth.
CINCINNATI—In search of a cure for ailing schools, educators and politicians from around the world have descended on this city’s poorest neighborhoods, hearing of a renaissance.
They are told stories of schools that escaped years of dysfunction by becoming “community learning centers,” replete with dental clinics, mental health therapists and mentors from local banks and churches. They hear of sparkling new libraries, over-the-moon teachers and too many volunteers to count.
Among the many visitors have been several candidates for mayor of New York City, who walked away so impressed that they have made replicating Cincinnati’s model a centerpiece of their campaigns.
“It makes so much sense,” Christine C. Quinn, the City Council speaker, said.
“Endless potential,” Bill de Blasio, the city’s public advocate, said.
Here’s what happens in the latest telling of this familiar old story, at least as Hernandez tells it. We’ll simplify a bit, but not much:
Gullible half-wits named Quinn and de Blasio have been “told stories of schools that have escaped years of dysfunction.” “In search of a cure” and believing these tales, they have trouped off to Cincinnati to gaze on “sparkling new libraries.”
After seeing the various wonders, the gullibles buy the stories completely. “Endless potential,” one candidate says.
Over the past fifty years, there has always been some golden-domed city upon which “educators and politicians from around the world have descended.” Journalists from around the world descend on these cities too.
These gullible people always buy the tales they hear at these sites. In the past decade, it was Helsinki to which these gullible people flew. While there, they swallowed the miracle tales, while enjoying their free week in the fancy hotel.
Now, Hernandez is reporting that all roads lead to Ohio’s Queen City, which is said to have turned mere schools into “community learning centers.”
For the record, this may be a very good idea. Indeed, it’s being done on a very large scale in New York City, as these candidates presumably know. (Fleetingly, Hernandez notes this fact.)
But is this transformation producing higher academic achievement in Cincinnati? Uh-oh! Hernandez says that “an analysis by the New York Times” has found some holes in the latest miracle tale—and the holes seem to be fairly large.
Does Hernandez know what he's talking about? Put it another way: What does intellectual paralysis look like? As we review this “Times analysis,” you should weep for your nation, which is paralyzed by the haplessness of the New York Times.
What does it look like when the Times conduct an “analysis” of a city’s public schools? Following his own remark about the drastic drop in New York, Hernandez introduces some awkward information about Cincinnati:
HERNANDEZ: Even before New York reported a drastic drop in reading and math scores last week on new exams aligned with tougher standards known as Common Core, the candidates were promoting the Cincinnati model on the campaign trail.Oof! According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (the NAEP), New York City has rather good test scores as major city systems go. (Cincinnati does not take part in the relevant NAEP study.) In what way do Quinn and de Blasio see the Taylor Academy as a model for Gotham?
But what has gone largely unsaid is that many of Cincinnati’s community schools are still in dire academic straits, according to an analysis by The New York Times, despite millions of dollars in investment and years of reform efforts.
The Ethel M. Taylor Academy, for example, which was one of the first schools to adopt the model, ranked 3,218th out of 3,456 public schools in Ohio in overall academic performance last year. Nearly three-quarters of its fifth-grade class did not pass state reading exams.
“We’re far from where we want to be,” Sean McCauley, the school’s principal, acknowledged. “It’s a struggle.”
Already, an experienced reader may be weeping for the kids whose lives are in the hands of gullible candidates of this type. Over the past fifty years, that experienced reader has read many news reports like this, in which gullible leaders troop off to purchase the latest tall tales.
But hold on a minute! Not so fast! As Hernandez continued his apparent debunking, we were struck by the limited intellectual skills of the New York Times.
In this passage, Hernandez pretends to make a sweeping comparison. His effort is a fail:
HERNANDEZ: As a whole, after years of poor performance and an exodus of middle-class families to the suburbs, Cincinnati has made some of the greatest gains in test scores in Ohio in recent years, even though it lags behind state averages. School officials here credit the city’s embrace of the community-schools model, which is now fully in place in 34 of 55 schools in the system.That’s a pathetic “analysis.” Here’s why:
But testing data show that at eight schools that were pioneers of the model, and that have the longest track record with it, students’ scores have improved but still trail that of other Ohio children, even poor ones.
Last year, for example, 48 percent of seventh graders from low-income backgrounds at the schools, which adopted the model in 2006 and serve large numbers of disadvantaged children, passed state exams in reading, according to a Times analysis of state testing data. Across Ohio, 80 percent of students passed the exams; among poor children statewide, the average was 68 percent.
School officials said it was difficult to compare poor students in Cincinnati with their counterparts across Ohio, noting that students in rural areas faced different challenges.
First, Hernandez makes no attempt to say how much progress has been achieved in Cincinnati. According to his analysis, 48 percent of “poor” seventh-graders in eight highly challenged Queen City schools passed the recent state exams in reading.
But he doesn’t tell us what sorts of gains have been achieved in those schools. What were passing rates like in the past? Hernandez doesn’t say.
Meanwhile, note the scribe’s refusal to perform the simplest type of disaggregation. Hernandez compares “poor” students in eight Cincinnati schools with their “poor” counterparts from around the state. He finds that Cincinnati’s “poor” (low-income) students are still performing substantially worse than their peers statewide, despite the ballyhooed reforms which have stock holders in phlogiston flying in from all over the world.
Gack! Perhaps for “political” reasons, Hernandez has failed to disaggregate fully! In the country on which he’s reporting, low-income black kids still don’t score as well in reading and math as low-income white kids. (Scores by both groups have been rising.)
Cincinnati’s student population is 70 percent black, 24 percent white. Across the state of Ohio, the numbers are quite different. In 2011, the distribution seemed to be roughly 73 percent white, 18 percent black.
For that reason, when Hernandez compares low-income kids in (a few) Cincinnati schools to low-income kids all over Ohio, he is almost surely comparing two different baskets of fruit. He is probably comparing one group which is dominated by low-income black kids to a second group with a much different demographic distribution.
What would happen if Hernandez compared low-income black kids in Cincinnati to low-income black kids around Ohio? To low-income black kids in Cleveland? We have no idea, because this “analysis by the New York Times” failed to perform this bone-simple act, an act so basic that any damn fool would know it should be performed.
At this point, we’ll take a guess! This failure to disaggregate may be the problem to which “school officials” referred in the statement which Hernandez so murkily paraphrased in the last paragraph we have posted. One more guess: The Times may have presented this bungled comparison because it doesn’t want to tell its sheltered readers that low-income black kids still score lower than low-income white kids, even though scores have been rising.
We’re still guessing! Rather than deal with that undesirable fact, the Times chose to present a comparison straight from statistical gong-show Hell. We’ll assume this gruesome decision was made by Hernandez’s editor.
Question: How would Cincinnati’s passing rates look if real comparisons were drawn between directly comparable groups? Who knows! It may be that Cincinnati’s kids are outperforming their peers around the state! But New York Times readers don’t know if that’s true because the glorious Times, true to its charter, failed to conduct a minimally competent analysis.
How much progress has occurred in Cincinnati’s schools? The Times didn’t try to say.
How well do Cincinnati’s students score as compared to their peers around the state? The Times skipped that question too!
It may well be that impressive gains have been occurring in Cincinnati! It may be that Cincinnati kids are outperforming the state! But readers of this hapless newspaper are condemned never to know such things. Instead, they are told, even more forcefully, that a “drastic drop” in test scores occurred in Gotham this year.
What has happened in Cincinnati? There is no sign that the New York Times has any idea. This brings us back to this striking passage in this morning’s report:
HERNANDEZ: In New York City, the Cincinnati model is praised by a diverse circle, including business executives, union officials and hospital employees, who all see it as a cost-effective way to combat poverty and turn around struggling schools.Do those business executives, union officials and hospital employees have any idea what they’re talking about when they praise “the Cincinnati model” as a way to “turn around struggling schools,” if that's really what they have said? Is there any reason to think that those mayoral candidates know what they’re talking about?
Four Democratic candidates for mayor—Mr. de Blasio, Ms. Quinn, John C. Liu and William C. Thompson Jr.—visited Cincinnati last year at the invitation of the United Federation of Teachers, New York City’s teachers’ union. For years, antipoverty organizations like the Harlem Children’s Zone and the Children’s Aid Society have operated forms of community learning centers at a small number of New York City schools, but some candidates are hoping to extend the idea to hundreds of them.
Ms. Quinn said city leaders were looking at successful community schools throughout the country, not just in Cincinnati, as they designed a plan for New York. “You’re never going to have a model out there that’s going to be 100 percent perfect,” she said.
Mr. de Blasio said it would take time to improve academic results. “There are no panaceas,” he said.
You’ll never learn the answer to that reading the hapless New York Times. But based on the past fifty years, the answer could be no.
For fifty years, groups like these have chased the latest miracle cure. They have believed the various stories of schools that escaped years of dysfunction.
Newspapers like the New York Times have been unwilling, or unable, to perform the basic background work on those repetitive stories. They can’t deliver us from the chairs in which we await our fate, paralyzed back in “the dead room.”
Today’s report is an intellectual mess. But then, such work is par for the course in this paralyzed newspaper—and no one you read in the play-for-pay world is willing to tell you about that!