Part 2—Possible bots of the gods: Are American's upper-end journalists bots? Are they possibly bots of the gods?
In retrospect, the question seems stunningly obvious. That said, it only occurred to us this morning, as we read this lengthy analysis piece by the New York Times' Sheryl Gay Stolberg.
We'll save that analysis piece for tomorrow. Today, let's start with one of the first dispatches we read after we returned from summering in chic southern Maine.
We refer to an op-ed column by the Washington Post's Christine Emba. It appeared in Saturday's hard-copy Post. It concerns an important topic.
What sorts of reforms might help lower-income and/or minority kids gain admission to college? Emba was asking a very good question. At one point, she wrote this:
EMBA (8/6/17): Addressing inequalities in K-12 education, for instance, could help at-risk students of all races increase their chances of attending a top college—or any college at all. Policies such as property-tax-based funding for schools and the curiously slanted allocation of talented teachers (in Louisiana, for instance, a student in the poorest quartile of schools is almost three times as likely to be taught by an ineffective teacher as a student in the wealthiest quartile is) give a tremendous boost in college admissions to children from high-income families, often at the expense of their lower-income peers.We were struck by the highlighted statement. The statement suggests that low-income kids in at least one southern state are getting a very raw deal in their schools:
"In Louisiana, a student in the poorest quartile of schools is almost three times as likely to be taught by an ineffective teacher as a student in the wealthiest quartile is."
Are Louisiana's lower-income kids getting saddled with a whole bunch of ineffective teachers? Since we could be talking about a tiny number of such teachers, Emba's statement doesn't quite say that. But plainly, that's what it suggests.
It's possible that this suggestion is true! Then again, we wondered about the key term in that equation:
"Ineffective teachers." How do we know who they are?
We wondered about this for a reason. We've followed these topics for a long time. Along the way, we've learned that you can't necessarily trust the academic authorities who tend to lie behind such claims.
It isn't just Donald J. Trump! In the pursuit of topics like these, our liberal academic authorities may sometimes tend to place their thumbs on the scales. Or so we've come to believe.
We suspected that Emba, a well-intentioned liberal journalist, may not share that perspective. We clicked the link her piece provided in search of the source of her claim.
What did we find when we clicked? We were whisked away to a 2014 report by the Center for American Progress. This was the passage in question:
DEMONTE AND HANNA (4/11/14): Our analysis of equitable teacher distribution in Louisiana includes 1,265 schools for which there were reported data on the results of teacher evaluation. The state requires every teacher to be evaluated, with 50 percent of the evaluation rating based on student growth and the rest based on other measures of teacher performance, such as observations of instruction. The state developed and piloted a state evaluation system called Compass that districts can use but that also allows districts to develop and use their own local evaluation systems as long as they comply with state law.We're asked to rely on an evaluation system devised by the state in question. Under that system, half of a teacher's rating seems to be based on largely subjective factors, "such as observation of instruction." The other half is based on "student growth."
Presumably, this student growth has been recorded on annual statewide tests. But the CAP report tells us no more.
At this point, we'll advise you to check your wallet. It's completely unclear how "student growth" has been defined in this evaluation system, and there are a lot of ways the use of such measures can go wrong.
A cynic might say that "effective teachers," as measured by student test scores, may often be those teachers blessed with effective students. It all depends on how those student scores are used.
It's also true that statewide tests have produced quite a few giant cheating scandals in recent years. We began writing about this problem in the Baltimore Sun the 1970s. Almost forty years later, outstanding work by USA Today finally helped the nation start to catch on.
Should we trust that evaluation system? We have no idea. But of one thing you can be certain. Within your major American newspapers, the most basic questions about such matters will never interrupt or cloud the basic story-telling.
Emba, who is well-intentioned, seemed to be reporting a correctable problem. But is there beef behind her claim? Our biggest newspapers virtually never ask such basic questions.
Are major journalists bots of the gods? Over the decades, hapless education reporting has encouraged such uncomfortable speculations.
In large part, we refer to hapless reporting in service to liberal presuppositions. Consider the Atlantic's recent report about Ojibwe math, or something somewhat like it.
The report was written by Melinda Anderson, whose work we've praised in the past. She too was asking important questions, at least in theory. These headlines topped her piece:
How Does Race Affect a Student's Math Education?Is "whiteness" affecting the math education of various groups of kids? Is it affecting their math education in negative ways?
A new paper examines the ways “whiteness” reproduces racial advantages and disadvantages.
If so, that would be a bad thing. But it's also bad when upper-end journalism turns on stories like this:
ANDERSON (4/25/17): Kassie Benjamin-Ficken, a teacher in Minneapolis, discovered her love of math in elementary school. One of her earliest memories is begging her mother to come to school so her teachers could share how she excelled in math class. While earning average scores in reading, she was consistently above average for math—which instilled her with a sense of accomplishment. That continued into middle school, where she recalls asking her math teachers to move her into a higher grade for more advanced content. But she remained in the same middle-school class.That's how Anderson starts her report. Apparently, we're supposed to think that something like this occurred:
Then in high school, her excitement for math slowly turned to disappointment. Benjamin-Ficken, a citizen of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe (a tribal nation in Minnesota), was one of two students of color in her 11th-grade pre-calculus class. When her study partner was absent for a series of days, Benjamin-Ficken began to struggle with the material and barely passed the class with a D-minus. Her senior year in AP Calculus repeated the pattern—lacking support and feeling ignored in the class, she passed with a D.
Benjamin-Ficken had always been a good math student. Then, her study partner was absent "for a series of days," and she ended up getting a D-minus for the year, in 11th grade.
Could that story be accurate? Everything is possible! That said, the story seems a bit odd on its face. We think of Jay Mathews' absurd account of Michelle Rhee's massive success as a second-grade teacher, in which, we were told, she turned a class of low-achievers around by seating them in a semi-circle.
Mathews is a highly experienced, excellent education reporter. That said, his claim about Rhee made little sense, except as an apparent example of the power of preconceived script.
After presenting that opening anecdote, Anderson explored the work of some professors on the alleged role of "institutional aspects of whiteness" in math education.
Over the years, we've come to feel that you can't automatically trust the judgment of such professors. And sure enough! Eventually, Anderson returns to the anecdote with which she opened her piece:
ANDERSON: Benjamin-Ficken, whose high-school experience challenged her confidence as a math student, is now a math specialist at Anishinabe Academy, a Minneapolis public school focused on using Native language and culture to support academics for urban indigenous students. A self-described math nerd, her teaching philosophy is grounded in breaking down the negative thoughts and ideas her students hold about mathematics. “If they want to choose this as a career, it's possible, [and] even if they don't … they can still think mathematically. A huge goal of mine is to build up that identity.”Is there a way to "us[e] Native language and culture to support academics for urban indigenous students," specifically in math? Presumably, there is, although the statement is vague.
But she’s also constrained by the institutional aspects of whiteness in her classroom that exist outside her teaching methods—not simply the how of teaching, but what the state standards value. She and her students share a culture that isn’t reflected in the way she’s expected to teach math. Required to rely on what she calls a “western white lens,” other sources of math knowledge that would be relevant to her students remain untapped. “What are the theorems that we have known here in America before colonization? What indigenous mathematicians have we had? We’re not a written society, so we don't have these books that say, ‘Here’s this Ojibwe person’s knowledge.’ It’s not the fact that I’m teaching this theorem … it’s what else can we highlight in our own community, in our own history here in Minnesota?”
That said, do Benjamin-Ficken and her students "share a culture that isn’t reflected in the way she’s expected to teach math?" Aside from the way she's required to teach math through a "western white lens," are there "other sources of math knowledge that would be relevant to her students?"
Is there some "indigenous mathematics" which "remains untapped?" Were there "theorems that [Native Americans] have known here in America before colonization?" If the Ojibwe didn't have "a written society," does it even make sensed to ask?
We'll assume that Benjamin-Ficken is a superb math teacher. That said, do any of these musings make sense? We would suggest that they maybe possibly don't, except as an apparent example of the power of preconceived script.
Over here in our liberal tents, these scripts have dominated liberal writing since at least the mid-1960s. These scripts have tended to make us elite liberals feel good, perhaps and relentlessly at the expense of our good decent low-income kids.
The Atlantic's a major historic institution. Are our journalists bots of the gods?
Tomorrow: Bots of the gods on parade