Part 2—The New York Times' trip to bountiful: Over the past dozen years, the Chicago Public Schools seems to have shown a lot of improvement.
This hasn't produced some sort of nirvana for the system's black kids. Last year, at the end of Grade 8, this is the way the city's black kids performed in math, as compared to their counterparts in fourteen other large cities:
Average scores, Grade 8 mathApplying the very rough ten-point rule, Milwaukee's black kids were something like two years behind their counterparts in Houston. Assuming no problems with the data, that's a sad state of affairs.
Naep, 2017; Black students only
San Diego: 257.57
Washington DC: 256.99
New York City: 255.63
Los Angeles: 253.66
Chicago wasn't far behind Houston—but Chicago didn't stand out as some sort of superstar among these fifteen cities. And when you consider some nationwide scores, reality starts to intrude:
Average scores, Grade 8 mathRather plainly, those numbers don't paint Chicago as the place "where students learn the most." If we're prepared to pretend that we actually care, those numbers come closer to defining an ongoing national tragedy—a tragedy taking place in Chicago and across the fruited plane.
Black students in Chicago: 259.45
Black students nationwide: 259.60
White students nationwide: 292.16
Last December, none of this gloom intruded on the New York Times' upbeat, somewhat eccentric report about Chicago's schools. Readers were given a different idea about what's goin' on in Chicago.
In part, that's because of the role the Times assigned to Lavizzo Elementary School.
In hard copy, the upbeat report in the Times appeared beneath a very large photo of six adorable little girls. Those adorable children attend Lavizzo. In hard copy, the caption said this:
NEW YORK TIMES PHOTO CAPTION: At Mildred I. Lavizzo Elementary School in Chicago. “Whatever kids come in here, we know we can grow them,” the school’s principal, Tracey Stelly, says.Below that upbeat photo caption, the upbeat headline said this:
New Measure Shows Where Students Learn the MostChicago seemed to be one of those places! Readers may have received the impression that those adorable little girl were the beneficiaries of this state of affairs.
Is Chicago really one of the places "where students learn the most?" Does it make sense to feature Chicago's black kids in such an upbeat suggestion?
Eventually, the Times reporters described the scene at Lavizzo Elementary, a very small school serving students from Pre-K through Grade 8. The scribes had made the trip to bountiful. This was their upbeat report:
BADGER AND QUEALY (12/13/17): On the city’s far South Side, scores have risen at Mildred I. Lavizzo Elementary School, which serves a student population that’s nearly 98 percent black and 93 percent low income. Several homes across the street are boarded up, and the area has lost population and jobs. Inside the school, the halls are decorated with emblems of other places: college banners, foreign flags, clocks that tell the time in Nairobi and Dublin.Lavizzo was the only school the Times reporters described. As you can see, they offered an upbeat description of the school, whose students are almost all black.
Tracey Stelly, the principal since 2009, has brought in every enhancement she can find. The school uses an International Baccalaureate curriculum. The students read the Junior Great Books. The school hosts a community farmer’s market. Outside groups lead choir classes and organized games at recess.
“Whatever kids come in here, we know we can grow them,” Ms. Stelly said. She peered into the gymnasium one afternoon this fall while the fifth graders were dancing with their teachers to celebrate a schoolwide fund-raising project. “When kids come in the building,” she said, “they know, ‘This is where I belong.’ ”
At Lavizzo, the district’s emphasis on data and performance tracking is also conveyed to students in a manner Ms. Stelly hopes will inspire competition while remaining playful. One first-floor bulletin board updates the school’s attendance targets. Another records goals that students have set for their standardized test scores.
For starters, let it be said again—Lavizzo's students are almost all identified as black. The little girls in that photo were adorable "black" kids. Unfortunately, this may have given Times readers a false impression about the current state of play inside Chicago's schools.
What are test scores like at Lavizzo? We'll try to tell you tomorrow; prepare for some weird-looking news. For today, let's consider the upbeat description of the efforts allegedly being made at the school, all of which may be admirable and good.
We love the idea that the school is adorned with foreign flags and with clocks which tell the time elsewhere in the world. You want those little girls to wonder about their planet's many locales—even perhaps to want to read books about those distant places.
You want those girls to wonder about children in places like Nairobi and Dublin. Do children their age play tag in Nairobi? What games do children play in those places?
What do they eat for lunch in cities like that? What kind of names do they have? You might even want to locate schools in those cities, so those girls can write letters to children there and ask such crucial questions.
We love the idea that outside groups lead choir classes and organized games at recess. Middle-class kids tend to get doted on in the ways they should, sometimes perhaps a bit more so. City kids should get to see that they're loved and valued in every way. City kids love being doted on. It's a story we'll tell some day.
As far as the description goes, that community farmer's market also sounds good. Do the kids maybe get to plant things of their own? Do they have books about the way things grow? Do kids and their families grow food around Dublin? (How about in Illinois?)
We're not sure how to react to other parts of that profile. The school uses an International Baccalaureate curriculum? That sounds extremely good, of course, but is that curriculum appropriate for kids who may be years behind in school?
The students read the Junior Great Books? That sounds extremely good too. But do those books work for kids who may be struggling to read at all?
Make no mistake! You want those little girls to be swimming in a sea of books, especially books they'll actually want to read, perhaps out loud to each other. But are the Junior Great Books the best choice at this particular school? Presumably like those Times reporters, we have no idea.
We make that unpleasant remark for an important reason. Neither of the Times reporters is an education specialist. Indeed, the Times has such contempt for public schooling that it doesn't really employ such reporters at all.
Instead, it does what other papers have typically done since roughly forever. It sends well-intentioned non-specialists into schools, possibly lacking a serious background.
It isn't the fault of the reporters that they're sent on such missions—on standard trips, perhaps to schools which are allegedly bountiful. It's the fault of an upper-class press establishment which has shown, for decades now, that it doesn't give the first flying fig about important little girls like the ones you see in that photo.
Again and again in the past fifty years, reporters have been sent to the heart of darkness and have emerged mouthing the claims of upbeat urban principals. Upper-class readers are served this gruel and are told that all is well.
So it was at Maury Elementary, a school we'll revisit on Thursday. Tomorrow, we'll consider one claim the Times reported—the claim that Lavizzo is a school whose "scores have risen."
Is Lavizzo a school where scores have risen in any significant relevant way? Spoiler alert: Even today, we have no idea!
That said, Laivizzo serves an important clientele—it serves Chicago's black kids. Systemwide, here's where those important children stood at the end of eighth grade last year:
Average scores, Grade 8 mathIn a remarkably upbeat report about places "where students learn the most," readers were shown six adorable girls—and were given no idea that the underlying reality could possibly be that bad.
Black students in Chicago: 259.45
White students nationwide: 292.16
Tomorrow: Concerning those rising scores