Mississippi (said to be) rising: How bad is our upper-end journalism?
As we sit here "on the beach," awaiting the start of Mister Trump's War, you're asking an excellent question!
The haplessness of our upper-end journalism helped give us this Era of Trump. We plan to spend the bulk of this year exploring the anthropological background to this state of affairs.
That said, let's return to your question! How bad is our upper-end press corps? Consider a column which appeared in the New York Times last month.
The New York Times is our nation's most famous upper-end newspaper. It's clogged with nonsense and with remarkably weak-minded Hamptons-based folderol every day of the week.
Because the paper promotes our own tribal values, we liberals struggle to notice this deeply destructive fact. At any rate, the column was written by Emily Hanford, who was obscurely identified as "the senior education correspondent for APM Reports."
Unpacking that identity line, APM is American Public Media, "the second largest producer and distributor of public radio programs in the United States after NPR." In short, the opinion column to which we refer joined the culture of pubic radio to that of the New York Times.
The result was an ungodly mess. That said, it has a lot to teach us about the failures of upper-end journalism and the overall liberal project.
Hanford's column appeared in the Times on Friday, December 6. On-line, it appears beneath these somewhat surprising headlines:
There Is a Right Way to Teach Reading, and Mississippi Knows ItMississippi has rarely been regarded as a locus of educational greatness. Now, Hanford seemed to be saying that things have changed.
The state’s reliance on cognitive science explains why.
Mississippi was now leading the way. Just consider those scores on the Naep!
HANFORD (12/6/19): New results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a standardized test given every two years to measure fourth- and eighth-grade achievement in reading and math, show that Mississippi made more progress than any other state.Essentially, Hanford went on to say the following:
The state’s performance in reading was especially notable. Mississippi was the only state in the nation to post significant gains on the fourth-grade reading test. Fourth graders in Mississippi are now on par with the national average, reading as well or better than pupils in California, Texas, Michigan and 18 other states.
What’s up in Mississippi? There’s no way to know for sure what causes increases in test scores, but Mississippi has been doing something notable: making sure all of its teachers understand the science of reading.
Starting in 2013, Mississippi began to stress the teaching of phonics. Since that time, its reading scores on the Naep have risen to the point where fourth graders in the low-income state are now on par with the national average!
Are fourth graders in Mississippi really scoring at the national average in reading? That would be a somewhat surprising outcome for two major reasons.
First, as Hanford later noted, Mississippi is "the poorest state in the nation," and low income often correlates with lower academic performance. That is a significant point, but there's also this:
Mississippi's public schools have an unusually large proportion of black kids—and at present, black kids generally score substantially lower, on average, than white kids on educational tests. If Mississippi is performing at the national average, that would be a substantial achievement—and this leads us to the place where the puzzlement starts floating in.
Hanford is dealing in "aggregate" scores—scores for Mississippi's fourth graders as a whole. She didn't "disaggregate" the state's test scores to see how different demographic groups were scoring.
Hanford didn't bother with that, so we did—and sure enough:
In fourth grade reading, Mississippi's black kids are outscoring their peers across the nation by almost one whole academic year! That said, Mississippi's white kids are outscoring their national counterparts by a similar amount.
Given the poverty found in the state, these results may make a savvy observer start to wonder a bit. At this site, we also noted the fact that Mississippi's math scores have risen since 2013 roughly as much as its reading scores have.
Hanford said the teaching of phonics had amped the reading scores. What explains the large score gains in math?
When we first encountered this column, we raised one additional point. Hanford was citing actual data from the Naep. But did her hypothesis really seem to make sense?
Did it really make sense to think that Mississippi could produce chart-topping reading scores simply by teaching phonics? Were Mississippi's low-income kids outperforming their more advantaged nationwide peers because they were getting phonics instruction while the others apparently weren't?
That hypothesis didn't exactly seem to make sense. But there the unusual column sat, atop a page in the New York Times, a product of American Public Media.
When we first encountered this column, we were struck by the way it was breaking every known rule of upper-end education journalism.
Incredibly, Hanford was reporting score gains on the Naep! She was reporting apparent good news—and within our gloom-ridden, scripted national press, such things simply aren't done!
Incredibly, Hanford was reporting good news—but did her presentation make sense? Did it make sense to think that our poorest stare could be punking the rest of the nation in reading and math? Did it make sense to think that this surprising performance could have emerged from something as basic as the teaching of phonics?
To us, it didn't exactly make seem to make sense—and then, the letter appeared!
On Sunday, December 22, the New York Times haplessly published nine letters about our public schools.
The first eight letters took turns reciting a gloomy premise about our allegedly hapless public schools. This familiar premise had emerged from a bungled report in the Times about this past year's Pisa scores.
The first eight letters took turns reciting. The final letter drew back the curtain on Hanford's puzzling column.
The first eight letters of the nine all echoed a bungled premise about our allegedly floundering schools. The ninth letter did something that's never done.
We'll review that letter tomorrow. It teaches a lesson about Mississippi's schools but also, in a much larger sense, about our failed liberal hive.
How hapless is our upper-end press? We'll suggest that you come back tomorrow!
Tomorrow: The correspondent's (accurate) tale
Visit our incomparable archives: For our previous reports on Hanford's column, you can just click this.
For reports on the Pisa, click here.