Part 4—Watching the gaps get suppressed: It’s a sin to kill a mockingbird. Gregory Peck said that.
Something else is sinful too. It’s a sin when our journalists fail to report—refuse to report—our black kids’ substantial score gains.
Singing sweetly, the nation’s reporters and pundits routinely repeat elite propaganda about stagnant test scores in our allegedly failing schools. But how odd:
As pundits have done this in recent decades, black kids’ test scores in reading and math have risen rather sharply. These test scores come from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (the NAEP), the federal program which is routinely called the gold standard of domestic educational testing:
Average scores, black students, public schoolsWhat sort of academic progress is indicated by a score gain of that size? According to a very rough rule of thumb, ten points on the NAEP scale is often compared to one academic year.
Grade 8 math, NAEP
For more detail, see yesterday’s report.
The average score of black eighth-graders has risen by more than 23 points! Does that mean that these kids are two years ahead of their peers from the mid-1990s?
To us, that seems unlikely. That said, we haven’t seen the press corps analyze, debate or discuss that very important question.
We haven’t seen interviews with officials from the National Center for Education Statistics about that important question. That’s because the press corps has refused to report or discuss these large score gains in any way at all!
It’s a sin to withhold that information—to rob the public of the chance to admire the progress being recorded by the nation’s black kids. That said, black kids are also poorly served when our journalists, advocates and professors refuse to discuss the size of the nation’s large gaps.
The gains are important, but so are the gaps! And the achievement gaps remain quite large in our public schools, a fact we’ll explore all next week.
If black kids have recorded large gains, why do the gaps remain large? Simple! White kids have been recording substantial score gains too—and so have Hispanic kids. As we noted yesterday, Richard Rothstein explained this bone-simple fact in his piece for Slate:
ROTHSTEIN (8/29/11): Though you would never know it from the state of public alarm about education, the numbers show that regular public school performance has skyrocketed in the last two decades to the point that, for example, black elementary school students now have better math skills than whites had only 20 years ago...The reason test score gaps have barely narrowed is that white students have also improved, at least at the elementary and middle school levels.It’s a sin to withhold such information, about the gains and the gaps. But our press corps relentlessly does so, even as it hails the NAEP as “the nation’s report card.”
In fairness, the mainstream press corps does tend to report the gaps, although it does so fleetingly. Meanwhile, it thoroughly disappears the gains. This creates a vast misconception about the state of our schools.
That said, some journalists have made it their business in recent weeks to avoid the gaps. Almost all our journalists hide the gains. These others are hiding the gaps.
We’d call their conduct a bit sinful too. Let’s start with the New York Times’ Eduardo Porter.
In last week’s Economic Scene column, Porter discussed one of the achievement gaps found in our schools—the large achievement gap between “the rich and the poor.” That said, he never mentioned the large gap between our white kids and our black kids—and he built a puzzling framework around his whole discussion.
How large are our achievement gaps? “In some public schools,” Porter wrote, “children who are entering the sixth grade with the measured proficiency of first graders are mixed in with children who perform well above the sixth-grade standard.”
That represents a gigantic gap, but Porter built a puzzling framework around that startling portrait. Trusting the wisdom of the highly politicized education wing of the OECD, he seemed to criticize public schools for the way they handle these very large gaps:
PORTER (5/21/14): Three years ago, the [OECD] prepared a comprehensive report outlining what the United States could learn from the countries with the best-performing education systems.Can American education boast of “egalitarian beginnings?” In light of our punishing racial history, that is a very strange notion.
One of its core recommendations belied American education’s egalitarian beginnings: Stop channeling disadvantaged students into a lower-quality education.
Tracking in the United States is not formal, as it is in Germany, where children are directed early in high school onto either a vocational path or one that requires a college education. “It tends to be done as a matter of practice or custom,” the O.E.C.D. noted…
Tracking also happens within schools, where students are often separated by ability. “Advanced children are all put together; they all know each other and learn from each other’s habits,” said Sal Khan, the founder of the Khan Academy of online education. “At the low end, it’s an intellectual wasteland.”
That said, we think that whole passage is odd. It’s odd to be told that vast achievement gaps obtain in our schools, then to be told that these schools should stop “tracking” students—should “stop channeling disadvantaged students into a lower-quality education.”
In that passage, Porter uses evocative language to make his readers feel that schools are improperly assigning their disadvantaged students.
But if some sixth-graders are working on first-grade level and others are working ahead of grade level, are schools really supposed to teach them the same math lessons? The contradiction here seems obvious, but Porter plowed ahead with his message:
“Tracking” is bad, the columnist said, even as he seemed to define the need for something resembling that practice.
Porter told a familiar old story: Schools are “channeling disadvantaged students into a lower-quality education.”
Somewhere in our public schools, that’s actually happening, of course. Disadvantaged students are being held back for inappropriate reasons.
But Porter’s recitation seemed a bit puzzling, given the rest of his exposition. Given our giant achievement gaps, what is a school to do?
That said, many journalists are happy to sing this familiar old song about schools. Consider Nikole Hannah-Jones’ recent portrait of Tuscaloosa’s three public high schools—a portrait we would call somewhat puzzling and perhaps just a bit dishonest.
Writing for ProPublica and The Atlantic, Hannah-Jones offered a 10,000-word piece about the “resegregation” of Tuscaloosa’s schools. Our view? In the course of exploring racial imbalance, she stumbled upon our humongous achievement gaps, then largely tried to avoid them.
As her focus, Hannah-Jones reported on Tuscaloosa’s Central High School. It’s an all-black school whose district lines were “gerrymandered,” Hannah-Jones convincingly writes, to ensure that it would serve “the city’s poorest part of town.”
Unsurprisingly, Hannah-Jones discovered a student body on the low end of the very large gaps which defines the current state of our public schools. Our achievement gaps remain very large, and they track to income and race.
What do achievement levels look like at Central High? Only two kids in the senior class passed the AP English exam last year. This year, D’Leisha Dent is one of 17 kids taking the same AP class. She is benefiting from the “tough honors coursework,” or so Hannah-Jones says.
Dent “excels in school,” Hannah-Porter reports; she’s one of the school’s brightest students. But alas! Dent, a superlative young person, can’t score well enough on the ACT to let her attend a four-year college next year.
Dent is one of Central’s brightest students—but on the ACT, she keeps scoring on the twentieth percentile nationwide. Avoiding what this seems to suggest, Hannah-Porter offers a familiar complaint about the way Central High was run when it was reconfigured as a low-income, all-black school:
HANNAH-JONES (4/16/14): [B]lack students, overall, are less likely than any other group of students to attend schools with Advanced Placement courses and high-level classes like calculus.Hannah-Jones presents some troubling facts in that passage. Other facts may make terrible sense, though Hannah-Jones skipped past such questions.
The night the Tuscaloosa school board voted to split up the old Central [High], board member Bryan Chandler pledged that there would be no winners and losers. Yet while Northridge [High] offered students a dozen Advanced Placement classes, the new Central went at least five years without a single one. Journalism awards stretch wall to wall in Northridge’s newspaper classroom, but for the better part of a decade, Central students didn’t have a school newspaper or a yearbook. Until last year, Central didn’t even offer physics.
Given the giant size of our gaps, is it possible that no one in the reconfigured Central High was qualified, by normal standards, for Calculus 1 or AP English? By normal standards, does Dent, who is a superlative person, qualify for Advanced Placement coursework today?
These are uncomfortable questions, but they follow directly from Hannah-Jones’ reporting and from the size of our gaps. For many journalists, though, such questions seem to be best avoided.
Indeed, Hannah-Jones seemed to do that very thing when she discussed the previous version of Central High, which served the entire student population of Tuscaloosa.
In that earlier Central High, black kids and white kids attended together. Hannah-Jones files this familiar complaint:
HANNAH-JONES: In the fall of 1979, [the all-city version of] Central High School opened to serve all public-high-school students in the district—no matter their race, no matter whether they lived in the city’s public-housing projects or in one of the mansions along the meandering Black Warrior River. The mega-school, a creative solution to a complex problem, resulted from many hours of argument and negotiation...At the old Central High, white kids from mansions along the river attended school with black kids from Tuscaloosa’s housing projects. Given the nature of our nation’s large gaps, it was inevitable that black kids would be “disproportionately” represented in those honors classes.
The school was hardly perfect. Black students were disproportionately funneled into vocational classes, and white students into honors classes.
Hannah-Jones, posing as heroine, says those kids were “funneled.” In our view, it may be a sin to posture like that about such an important matter.
That said, such posturing is quite widespread. Let’s just pretend those gaps don’t exist! Two Sundays ago, Princeton professor Imani Perry played this familiar card in the Washington Post’s Outlook section:
PERRY (5/18/14): Today, the Northeast has the most racially homogenous schools; New York state and Washington, D.C., have the most segregated schools—by race and economic status. And since there is no constitutional right to an education, the federal courts cannot mandate that schools get equal funding. Within schools, advanced programs have become forms of segregation. One study found that, as of 2006, African American students were underrepresented by 48 percent in gifted education; Hispanic students are underrepresented by 38 percent.Do you understand the size of the gaps? If so, Perry’s statistics may not seem hugely surprising to you, depending on what they’re intended to mean.
But instead of explaining that basic fact, Professor Perry played the heroine too. It’s “segregation,” she said. The Washington Post chose to publish.
According to our most reliable data, black kids have recorded large score gains in recent decades. That’s very important, very good news.
It’s a sin to withhold those gains from the public, as the press corps relentlessly does in service to rank propaganda. It’s a sin to tolerate this silence, as the liberal world constantly does.
But even with those large score gains, large achievement gaps remain. Unless you’re reading one of the people who specialize in other forms of avoiding.
All next week, we’ll look at the size of our gaps, which testify to a brutal history no living person created. For any number of reasons, it’s important to understand the size of those gaps, along with the size of those very impressive gains.
In our view, Porter, Perry and Hannah-Jones were largely avoiding the size of the gaps in their recent reports. It’s a sin to ignore the gains, but we feel forced to suggest that their work may be a bit sinful too.
All next week: The size of the gaps
Starting June 9: What the gaps mean in the classroom