Can this possibly be on the level?: Long ago and far away, the New York Times engaged in a type of denialism concerning New York City's large achievement gaps.
Actually, it happened this past spring. A very small number of black and Hispanic kids had been offered admission to Stuyvesant High, crown jewel of the Gotham system, or to the city's seven other "specialized high schools."
Why had so few of these kids done well on the admission test? With the help of NPR's Alisa Chang, Eliza Shapiro engaged in a familiar type of denial while appearing on All Things Considered:
CHANG (3/19/19): So what have been the explanations for why these stark racial disparities exist at these eight elite schools?Gotham's giant achievement gaps had nothing to with what happened! It was "test prep," Shapiro said, extending her newspaper's ugly tale in which a bunch of low-income Asian kids are buying their way into Stuyvesant High, stealing those other kids' seats.
SHAPIRO: Yeah, so I think there's two things. The biggest issue here is test prep. We've seen the same debate with the SAT and ACT, certainly, in light of the college admissions scandal. There is a huge test prep industry in New York that prepares kids who are aware of the test to master it. So test prep is one. The other, which is related, is awareness. Some kids know about these schools from the minute they're in kindergarten...
Gotham's giant achievement gaps? They went completely unmentioned!
We liberals have been playing versions of this game at least since the 1960s. We pretend those gaps are just an illusion—in this case, that they're a function of test prep.
In Saturday morning's New York Times, Kimiko de Freytas-Tamura took a different approach. She'd been dispatched to Maplewood, New Jersey to report on a dispute about a case of "school segregation" her righteous employers had spotted.
She reported on a small school district, the South Orange-Maplewood School District. The district serves roughly 7000 kids in a pair of New Jersey towns.
Along the way, de Freytas-Tamura broke a basic rule of conduct. In her report, she seemed to say that the achievement gaps in Maplewood and South Orange really exist and are real:
DE FREYTAS-TAMURA (8/31/19): Black students in the district are, on average, academically three grades behind their white peers and are five times likelier to be suspended than white students, according to an analysis in 2017 by ProPublica. On state tests in math and language arts, black students lagged behind their white classmates in all seven elementary schools.On average, black kids in the district are three academic grades behind their white counterparts, de Freytas-Tamura reported—but she failed to ascribe this phenomenon to "test prep." She almost seemed to suggest that these large gaps are actually real!
In fairness, de Freytas-Tamura has an excuse for this gaffe. Though she's an experienced reporter with an impressive resume, she has no background in education reporting. Indeed, she has little experience in the United States.
As we noted on Monday, de Freytas-Tamura was born and raised in Paris. She prepped at Lycee International de Saint-Germain-en-Laye, whose main campus is reported to be located at 2 bis Rue du Fer à Cheval.
She spent her undergraduate years at Penn, graduating in 2006. Until recently, those seem to be the only years she has lived in the United States. Until quite recently, her extensive, impressive reporting career had been spent in locales elsewhere in the world.
For unknown reasons, this is the person the New York Times sent to report on Maplewood's alleged "segregation," an allegation which really involves just one elementary school among the district's total of ten schools.
De Freytas-Tamura has no background in education reporting. She has little background in the U.S. at all.
This may explain why she made the ideological error of reporting the district's achievement gaps as if they were actually real. We will note that, perhaps due to her inexperience, her reporting of the size of the gaps displayed a lack of clarity and/or expertise.
"Black students in the district are, on average, academically three grades behind their white peers?" De Freytas-Tamura failed to say at what grade level this three-year gap appears, and yes, it makes a difference.
Does the three-year gap appear at the end of high school? Does it appear in fifth grade? A more capable news report would have established this obvious point—but de Freytas-Tamura lacked experience in education and back in Gotham, or out in the Hamptons, her editor was likely asleep.
When are black kids in this district three years behind their white peers? On the most literal level, we can help you with that point, though the Times report let this point slide.
Rather plainly, de Freytas-Tamura took her statistic from the sweeping, nationwide ProPublica analysis she cited in the passage we've posted. That said, ProPublica—they aren't education specialists either—doesn't say where their "achievement gap" figures come from, and they don't say at what point this three-year gap obtains.
Luckily, we can tell you! Though ProPublica doesn't seem to say so, it's clear that they took their "achievement gap" data from Professor Reardon's sweeping study at Stanford, a study the New York Times memorialized in this extremely useful interactive feature in April 2016.
Professor Reardon explained that the achievement gaps he reported were an average of academic standing in the nation's various districts among kids in the third through the eighth grades. That would suggest that South Orange-Maplewood's three-year gap may well have been in effect by the end of sixth grade, and could get larger later.
We have no way of knowing if that is true, but that would be a sensible deduction, based on the ProPublica data de Freytas-Tamura reported.
Three years behind by the end of sixth grade? Plainly, that would be a large gap. This leads to our basic question:
Is any of this Times reporting for real? Is anything you read in the Times delivered to you in good faith?
We ask that question for a reason. Below, you see what happened as de Freytas-Tamura continues along after reporting that gap:
DE FREYTAS-TAMURA: Black students in the district are, on average, academically three grades behind their white peers and are five times likelier to be suspended than white students, according to an analysis in 2017 by ProPublica. On state tests in math and language arts, black students lagged behind their white classmates in all seven elementary schools.Try to follow the logic there, logic the Times never questions:
And though the district has just one high school, white and black students have disparate experiences. White students made up 64 percent of the students who took Advanced Placement courses at Columbia High School, the ProPublica analysis found, while black students represented just 22 percent. In classes geared toward gifted and talented students, 83 percent of the seats were filled by white students, compared with the 7 percent of seats filled by black students.
“You can peer through a doorway of a classroom and you can tell, based on the racial makeup of the class, what level it is,” said Walter Fields, the leader of the Black Parents Workshop, a local advocacy group that filed a lawsuit this year accusing the district of discriminating against students of color.
According to the Times, the average black kid is three years behind the average white kid in this district. Though the Times never puzzles this out, this would likely seem to be true by the end of sixth grade.
That is a deeply unfortunate fact, one which calls for analysis and discussion. But the Times proceeds directly ahead to a somewhat peculiar complaint:
An angry citizen complains that the AP classes at the district's one high schools include more white than black kids! Our obvious question is this:
Given what de Freytas-Tamura has reported, why would anyone be surprised to learn that the high school's AP classes have three times as many white kids? Why would that seem to be odd?
A person's assessment of that ratio would depend, of course, on the overall ratio of white-to-black enrollment at the high school, and this is a point which de Fretas-Tamura may perhaps have bungled. That said, here is the passage in which she describes the district's overall enrollment:
DE FREYTAS-TAMURA: While the schools, like the [two] towns, are diverse, students are often separated by race. White students represent about half of the roughly 7,100 students. African-Americans make up 35 percent, and the rest are Hispanic, Asian or of mixed race, according to the census."According to the census?" We have no idea why de Freytas-Tamura would use the census as her source of enrollment data. At any rate, that's all she wrote about total enrollment—and that leaves us fighting about this non-puzzle puzzle:
Black-white enrollment in South Orange/Maplewood:Given the three-year achievement gap, we have no idea why that AP course enrollment would seem surprising at all. But this obvious point was never raised as the Times report stumbled along, looking for discrimination, even for "segregation."
District-wide enrollment: 50% white kids, 35% black kids
Enrollment in AP courses: 64% white kids, 22% black kids
For the record, how "segregated" are this district's schools? Below, you see black-white enrollment at its one high school and its two middle schools. We'll use the state's official data for the 2017-2018 school year:
Black-white enrollment in South Orange/Maplewood:It's hard to spot the "segregation" there. As noted, the claim of "segregation" involves just one of the district's six (not seven) elementary schools—a school which is predominantly black, while the other five elementary schools are predominantly white.
District-wide: 53.6% white kids, 29.4% black kids
Columbia High School: 50.6% white kids, 37.4% black kids
Maplewood Middle: 50.5% white kids, 33.7% black kids
South Orange Middle: 50.2% white kids, 28.5% black kids
De Freytas-Tamura attributes this disparity to a residential pattern. The district is currently trying to decide whether to bus kids to even out enrollment patterns at these six elementary schools.
Some people want to bus, other people don't. Possibly complicating the matter is something de Freytas-Tamura doesn't cite:
According to those official New Jersey data, black fifth-graders at the predominantly black school outperformed their counterparts at the other elementary schools in New Jersey's 2017-2018 state testing, the most recent for which data are available.
When de Freytas-Tamura met Maplewood, the New York Times ended up with the type of snarky overall presentation it likes. On-line, the report appears beneath these snarky headlines:
A Suburb Believed in Liberal Ideals. Then Came a New Busing Plan."Its segregated school system!" In such ways, this newspaper's deeply horrible pseudo-elite keeps pimping out the tribal tales it likes.
A school district confronts its segregated school system.
You can't blame de Freytas-Tamura for the snark which rules those headlines. You also can't blame her for having been given this assignment, one to which she brought no subject matter experience.
You can wonder how much hypocrisy is involved in that snarky presentation. To answer that question, you'd have to know what editor composed it, and you'd have to know where that editor sends his or her children to school.
In the end, you have to ask two questions about this latest attempt to find "school segregation" under every bed:
First, is any of this "segregation" reporting actually done in good faith? And second, has the New York Times created an anthropological breakthrough?
Regarding that first question:
Who could possibly think that New York City's giant achievement gaps are solely, or even mainly, explained by test prep? The thought is crazy on its face, and it's profoundly uncaring. But that's what Shapiro told Chang on NPR, and Chang just sat there and took it.
Also this: Once you've reported that three-year gap in Maplewood, who could possibly be surprised by those AP enrollment patterns? On their face, no sane person would find them surprising, but this obvious point passed the Times by.
Sadly, Times subscribers struggled in comments, failing to see the obvious way these basic facts intersect.
Regarding that second question:
Ever since the dawn of the west, we've been happily pimping ourselves as "the rational animal." The relentless behavior of the Times is now said to have given the lie to that ancient fable.
According to top anthropologists, a different picture has come into view, if only in the future. Especially at times of tribal stress, we humans run on "gossip" and tribalized "fiction," just as Professor Harari has said.
The Times has a tribalized story it likes. No matter how much dumbness is required, it keeps finding ways to advance it.
How about those numbers from GATE: What about those numbers from the district's GATE programs? As noted above, de Freytas-Tamura writes this:
DE FREYTAS-TAMURA: And though the district has just one high school, white and black students have disparate experiences. White students made up 64 percent of the students who took Advanced Placement courses at Columbia High School, the ProPublica analysis found, while black students represented just 22 percent. In classes geared toward gifted and talented students, 83 percent of the seats were filled by white students, compared with the 7 percent of seats filled by black students.Eighty-three percent to seven percent; that is a very large ratio. According to ProPublica, this district's GATE enrollment is almost entirely found in its two middle schools, where roughly 18 percent of students take part.
That's a very large "enrollment gap." Given the reported three-year achievement gap, to what extent does that enrollment gap make sense?
It would be interesting to try to figure that out. Of one thing you can be certain:
The Times will never do that.