Part 2—The Times gets conned by the profs: It’s a well-known, undesirable fact—black kids get suspended and expelled from school much more often than white kids.
What explains this undesirable state of affairs? We can think of several possible causes. In comment threads, individuals tend to focus on just one. Typically, people select a cause which supports their tribal dogmas.
Why do black kids get suspended more often? In theory, it’s an important question. In practice, nobody cares.
But the basic fact at the heart of this matter has been well-known for a very long time.
See our report from September 2, with links to past reports from USA Today and the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.
Black kids get suspended much more often. Everyone has known this fact for a very long time.
But people! In a typical bit of faux journalism, the New York Times recently reinvented the wheel! It reported an exciting new study by two professors at Penn—a study which was so horribly bungled that Penn should be deeply embarrassed.
The news report about the study was written by Motoko Rich, the famous newspaper’s endlessly puzzling education reporter. The report appeared on August 25, part of this year’s back-to-school reporting. It bore an underwhelming headline:
“Analysis Finds Higher Expulsion Rates for Black Students”
Everyone has always known it! Black kids have higher suspension and expulsion rates, on a nationwide basis.
But so what! According to that New York Times headline, someone’s “analysis” had now “found” that this state of affairs exists! And uh-oh! As Rich began her news report, a familiar old theme appeared. Headline included:
RICH (8/25/15): Analysis Finds Higher Expulsion Rates for Black StudentsIn thirteen Southern states, Rich said, black kids are suspended or expelled much more often than white kids! There you see her first three grafs, plus a later paragraph which provides a bit of context.
With the Obama administration focused on reducing the number of suspensions, expulsions and arrests in public schools, a new analysis of federal data identifies districts in 13 Southern states where black students are suspended or expelled at rates overwhelmingly higher than white children.
The analysis, which will be formally released Tuesday by the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, focused on states where more than half of all the suspensions and expulsions of black students nationwide occurred. While black students represented just under a quarter of public school students in these states, they made up nearly half of all suspensions and expulsions.
In some districts, the gaps were even more striking: in 132 Southern school districts, for example, black students were suspended at rates five times their representation in the student population, or higher.
Blacks were suspended or expelled at rates higher than their representation in the student body in every one of the 13 states analyzed. The report shows data for more than 3,000 districts.
Let’s give credit where due. It’s hard to include that much misdirection in 137 words, the length of Rich’s first three paragraphs. That said, Rich works for the New York Times, where such achievements are routine.
What makes those first three paragraphs puzzling? Let’s note an array of points:
First, Rich notes that this analysis “identifies districts in 13 Southern states where black students are suspended or expelled at rates overwhelmingly higher than white children.” Since black kids are suspended and expelled at much higher rates all over the country, it isn’t clear why this undesirable state of affairs would count as actual news.
Nor does Rich ever explain why the authors of the study examined just those Southern states. This omission fueled the misunderstanding which Rich’s report helped inspire.
(To review the Penn study, click here.)
In her second paragraph, Rich starts to fashion the point of confusion which quickly spread to other major news orgs. She reports that “more than half of all the suspensions and expulsions of black students nationwide” occurred in just those “13 Southern states.”
On its face, that fact would almost surely strike many readers as odd. As everyone knows, thirteen states are less than half of the fifty states which comprise the union.
Why would more than half of black kids’ suspension occur in just thirteen states? To many mainstream journalists, an obvious answer suggested itself! But as is routinely the case with this group, their answer was groaningly wrong.
As Rich continued, so did the incomprehension. As she continued her second paragraph, she noted an undesirable fact: “While black students represented just under a quarter of public school students in these states, they made up nearly half of all suspensions and expulsions.”
Without any question, that’s an undesirable state of affairs. On the other hand, Rich doesn’t include a basic bit of context—that general degree of disproportion exists on a nationwide basis. Her failure to note this basic fact helped produce widespread incomprehension.
Might we note one last point? In her third paragraph, Rich seems to express surprise at the following fact: “In some districts, the gaps were even more striking.” Following the professors who fashioned the study, she notes the higher rate of disproportion in 132 of the districts under review—132 districts out of more than three thousand in all.
Might we note an obvious point? In this matter, as in all others, some districts will exceed the statistical average. Other districts will fall short of the statistical average.
Obviously, some districts will exceed the average. Still, noting this obvious fact with surprise will heighten the sense that some shocking state of affairs has been “found.” That pretty much wasn’t the case with this study, which “found” an unfortunate state of affairs which has long been known to exist.
By the way—as we noted in this earlier post, some of those 132 districts weren’t actual “districts” at all. Many others were actual districts, but they had so few white kids, or so few black kids, and they had suspended so few students, that the list compiled by the professors became a useless statistical joke.
We’ll offer examples tomorrow. But that list adds nothing to our knowledge. It provides much more heat than light.
We’ve looked today at just the start of Rich’s news report. Might we note the obvious interpretation, or story line, which quickly spread through wide swaths of the press corps?
This interpretation was wrong, but mainstream journalists rushed to promote it. Here it is—and once again, this conclusion is wrong:
Black kids get suspended much more frequently in the South than in other parts of the country!
That conclusion seems to be totally wrong, but it’s very familiar and easy to type. Presumably for those reasons, many news orgs typed it last month, as we’ll show you tomorrow.
The confusion started with the professors at Penn and their bungled study. But the misunderstanding was driven along by the Times, whose reporter omitted a basic fact—an extremely basic fact she plainly should have included.
What basic fact did Rich omit? Uh-oh! A commenter, purporting to be from Beirut, somehow managed to supply it:
COMMENTER FROM BEIRUT: The entire point of this “analysis” is moot. Their damning claim: that 55% of suspensions of black students occur in 13 Southern states. According to Wikipedia, as of 2010, 57% of American blacks live in the “American South.” Look at the demographics maps; I am pretty sure it all comes from US censuses which are publicly available.Uh-oh! Due to population patterns, most black kids go to school in just those thirteen states! The professors failed to note this fact in their painfully bungled study.
Rich omitted this basic fact too. Presumably, this helped produce a familiar bogus conclusion in wide swaths of the press corps.
Nothing will turn on this one report in the New York Times. Nothing will turn on the study by the two professors, although its existence should be an embarrassment to Penn.
Nothing will turn on the bogus conclusion which swept through wide swaths of the press corps. But our press corps lacks the most basic skills, a fact which became clear in this case, a case which helps us understand the way our press corps works.
They like to type familiar old stories. The laziness they bring to their work suggests a sad conclusion:
They don’t actually give a rip about black kids in our public schools. They don’t give a rip about the experiences of those kids in our schools, or about their achievements.
Black kids seem to be doing much better in school! We’ve been noting that very important fact for quite a few years now. But thanks to our mainstream press corps, the public has never so much as heard that fact, let alone seen it discussed.
Our journalists refuse to say that black kids are doing much better in school. They refuse to let the public take pride in that apparent achievement.
Instead, they type the gloomy tales which come to them from elite corporate sources. Nothing is working on our schools! It’s all the fault of our public school teachers with their infernal unions!
Your journalists love to type those tales, which completely erase the impressive gains of our black kids. They also seem to like the types of stories they’ve heard a million times in the past.
In this case, they typed a tired old tale straight outta Southern Gothic. They displayed a remarkable lack of analytical skill as they did.
Are black kids doing much better in school? Your press corps refuses to tell you that!
They prefer to relive In the Heat of the Night! It’s tribally pleasing and easy to type. Typing that story is fun!
Tomorrow: Truly horrendous work. Prepare to cringe.
The number of kids in those states: That commenter cited a basic fact. More than half the nation’s black kids attend schools in those thirteen states! For our own best account of the data, see this September 2 post.
It would be important to understand why black kids get suspended more often. But they get suspended more often all over the country, not just in those Southern states.
Alas! The professors fashioned a pleasing tale straight outta Southern Gothic. They then began to parade about, explaining a state of affairs their study didn't demonstrate.
NPR journalists swallowed it whole, as we'll show you tomorrow.
At the Times, Rich failed to provide a very basic bit of context. As a result, a bogus old tale spread to other news orgs. Tomorrow, prepare to cringe.
That commenter asked the basic question. He then provided some basic information. Rich did neither at the Times. It’s the way our press corps works.