Part 4—At the Times' showcase school: It can be amazingly easy! Especially if you almost surely don't know what you're talking about, and if you don't gigantically care.
These award-winning thoughts popped into our heads as we read these letters in today's New York Times.
The Times published four letters about Mayor de Blasio's newly-announced plan—his plan to increase diversity at the city's "elite high schools" by eliminating the use of admission tests.
Is that a good idea? Not necessarily, no. But we're speaking here about reactions to the plan, not about the high-minded proposal itself.
Our basic thought is this: It's amazingly easy to improve public schools if, perhaps like some letter writers, you don't know much about such schools and you don't necessarily care!
The first letter writer "is the parent of a student at a specialized high school." In his letter, he says the city should retain the admission tests.
"The best way for the city to increase diversity at these schools is to improve the students’ primary school education," this concerned parent says today. He makes it sound so easy!
He makes it sound so easy! New York City should simply improve the primary school education of its black and Hispanic kids, the kids who are currently under-represented in the elite high schools.
He makes it sound so easy! Left unmentioned are the data you've never seen in the New York Times, the data which help explain the demographics of those admissions-based schools:
Average scores, Grade 8 math, NaepThose data may help us understand the demographics of those elite high schools. They also help display the problem we all (quite happily) live with.
New York City, 2017
White students: 290.71
Black students: 255.63
Hispanic students: 263.56
Asian-American students: 306.03
He makes it sound so easy! The city needs to improve the education of its black and Hispanic kids, wiping out the gigantic gaps which exist at the end of eighth grade! Apparently, no one but the letter writer has ever thought of that!
The obvious question: How can Gotham do that? How do you eliminate achievement gaps in math which range, in the data shown above, from 3.5 to five years at the end of eighth grade?
The answer to that question is daunting. This may help explain why data like those never appear in the New York Times, and therefore never darken or trouble the outlook of the Times' upper-end readers.
Simply put, our big newspapers show few signs of caring about black kids. Their problems and interests are routinely shoved to the side. Their problems and interests aren't allowed to intrude on the lives of subscribers.
(Rachel and Lawrence play the same game. Manifestly, our big corporate stars don't care.)
Periodically, our big newspapers have played a second game. The find some way to tell their readers that black kids are doing great in school after all—in Chicago, let's say.
Last December, the New York Times didn't make that explicit claim when it published a lengthy, somewhat obscure report about the Chicago Public Schools. (To all appearances, the system is, in fact, much improved over the past dozen years.)
Let's be fair! The New York Times didn't explicitly claim that Chicago's black kids are doing great in school. But it did imply a good game.
Employing a somewhat obscure statistic, the paper might have seemed to say that Chicago is one of a handful of places, across the whole nation, "where students learn the most." And atop its report, which consumed a full page, the paper ran a large photograph of six adorable little girls, all of whom would be socially identified as black.
The girls attend Lavizzo Elementary, the one Chicago school the Times chose to showcase. We were told that Lavizzo is "nearly 98 percent black"—and that its "[test] scores have risen." An upbeat description followed, with Lavizzo's upbeat principal saying the school "can grow" any child who shows up.
We learned long ago—in the early 1970s!—not to put faith in such claims. In such matters, we've seen basic skepticism justified time and again.
Remember Maury Elementary, the all-black Alexandria, Virginia school which the Washington Post hailed—atop its front page!—as "a study in pride and progress?" The front-page report quoted Maury's upbeat principal. The report included an upbeat photograph of that school's beautiful kids.
Maury was hailed atop the Post's front page back in 2006. Because we'd learned decades before not to put our faith in such claims, we decided to look at the data.
We discovered that Maury had actually recorded, among other low scores, the second lowest passing rate in Grade 3 reading of any school in the state of Virginia! And at the time, Virginia elementary schools were only testing Grades 3 and 5.
As it turned out, the Post had fallen for a truly ridiculous statewide scam. For a fuller report on this complex, ludicrous incident, you can just click here. (Eventually, the chairman of the Virginia State Board of Ed acknowledged the statewide disaster. We'll let the historians locate that post, because we can't find it at present.)
The Post bannered Maury atop its front page back in 2006. Decades before, we had learned not to put automatic faith in such happy-talk claims.
For that reason, we decided to check the test scores of Lavizzo. And uh-oh! According to its official Illinois School Report Card for the last school year, Lavizzo boasted one of the lowest overall "passing rates" of any school in Chicago, and presumably in the whole state.
What does the state of Illnois say about Lavizzo? In its most basic overview of Chicago's schools, its data say that only 5.9% of Lavizzo's students were "ready for the next level" based on last year's statewide testing.
The Chicago Public Schools run more than 400 elementary schools, many of which serve essentially all-black populations. Only a handful of those schools boasted a lower "readiness" rate than Lavizzo on those official statewide tests.
Now for a moment of fairness! The state of Illinois began using the somewhat controversial PARCC tests in the 2015-2016 year. Last year was just the second year that Lavizzo, and all other Illinois schools, used those particular tests.
The PARCC tests may not be the best instrument for measuring the work being done at Lavizzo. Still, it's hard to square Lavizzo's exceptionally low "readiness" rate with the glowing picture of the school in that Times report, driven along by that winning photo of its littlest students.
We asked Emily Badger, one of the Times reporters, to explain the claim that Lavizzo is a school where "scores have risen." She sent us a statement she'd received from the school district itself, a statement describing the school's improvement from 2013 to 2017 on a set of assessments called the NWEA—a set of assessments the city administers in addition to its state-mandated PARCC tests.
What is the NWEA? It's the Northwest Evaluation Association, a somewhat obscure program of instruction and assessment.
How obscure is the NWEA? It doesn't even have a Wikipedia entry! That doesn't mean that it's a bad system, of course.
Last month, Heidi Stevens reported for the Chicago Tribune on the NWEA's procedures, as seen within one Chicago elementary school. As a general matter, we're inclined to favor the general ideas behind the system Stevens described.
That doesn't tell us if the program is helping Chicago's low-income minority kids. It doesn't tell us if Lavizzo is showing improvement (and achievement) on a scale that's worth talking about.
The Chicago Public Schools offer a 2017 "School Progress Report" for Lavizzo. (Click here, enter "Lavizzo.") The school is credited with "student attainment" on the NWEA which is rated as "average," and with "student growth" which is "far above average."
We don't know what those categories mean, and the information links don't seem to be working. We have no idea how to evaluate the data in that School Progress Report. History teaches, again and again, that there's a need to be skeptical about such claims.
How much are kids learning at Lavizzo? We can't tell you that. Decades of experience tell us that you should never trust the claims that are made by individual schools or upbeat principals (however well-motivated), or by school systems themselves. Beyond that, the NWEA assessments are rather obscure.
Then too, we have that official Illinois School Report Card, where Lavizzo's scores are dismal. We don't know how much kids are actually learning there—not does it exactly matter.
It doesn't exactly matter for an obvious reason. Despite the happy talk in that full-page Times report—despite those adorable little girls—this is where matters stood at the end of last year:
Average scores, Grade 8 mathWhat's happening at Lavizzo Elementary, a small school in a very large city? Like the Times, we can't tell you that. But despite that photo of those little girls, that's what was happening all over Chicago at the end of last year!
Black students in Chicago: 259.45
White students in Chicago: 305.81
White students nationwide: 292.16
In New York, one man knows what Chicago should do. Chicago should improve its schools, the gentleman helpfully says.
He says this because he reads the Times, and the Times has never much seemed to care. It doesn't publish data like those. Like the bulk of the upper-end press, it tends to sell happy talk instead.
This isn't the fault of those two Times reporters, neither of whom is an education specialist. This is the long-standing culture of the upper-end press corps, and of our liberal world as well.
We quit on black kids long ago. Unless the kids are in Malawi, Lawrence and Rachel don't care.
Tomorrow: Outrage in Boston
Sources of the numbers: For all Naep data, just click here. At that point, you're on your own.