The way these stories get told: Did Mississippi start teaching phonics, then see its Naep scores soar?
So we subscribers were told in the December 6 New York Times, in a column by public radio's Emily Hanford. It was almost the latest miracle tale—the latest example of the way these stories have always been told.
On December 22, the Times published a set of nine letters about the public schools. The last two letters dealt with the emerging Mississippi miracle, based on the way the high-poverty state has embraced "the science of reading."
For at least fifty years, we liberals have tended to buy these "simple solution" tales. The eighth letter helps us see the way these stories get purchased:
LETTER TO THE NEW YORK TIMES (12/22/19): Re “Perpetual Laggards Leap Ahead in Reading,” by Emily Hanford (Op-Ed, Dec. 6), about Mississippi students’ improved standardized test scores:The letter came from Larchmont, New York. As a general matter, the writer believed what he'd been told. He'd read it in the Times!
Apparently, educational theory has come full circle. When my wife and I were learning to read, we were taught to use phonics to decode unfamiliar written words. Later our mothers, who were public-school teachers, were required to teach reading by other newer methods. But they confessed to us that they never abandoned phonics entirely because the newfangled methods were less effective.
Now we are back where we started and should have never left. Could that be true for instruction in the other two “Rs”—writing and arithmetic—as well?
Mississippi had begun teaching phonics! (We're sorry. In the parlance of the Times, the state had begun "relying on cognitive science," on "the science of reading.")
Mississippi had begun teaching phonics! And because the low-income state was showing improved reading scores, this reader believed that we were "back where we started and should have never left."
Branding being what it is, it's very easy for Times subscribers to swallow the pap they get sold there. But uh-oh! The ninth letter blew a hole in the new miracle tale:
LETTER TO THE NEW YORK TIMES (12/22/19): Emily Hanford’s piece about improved test scores in reading in Mississippi since the state began funding in 2013 to train its teachers in a particular methodology certainly sounds optimistic. However, there’s another reason, a big one, for the improvement in fourth-grade reading scores, which Ms. Hanford didn’t mention.Oof! According to this retired professor, Mississippi had begun making more kids repeat third grade. Whatever the possible merits of such an approach, it would also likely have the effect of jacking up Grade 4 test scores.
In 2013, Mississippi passed a Literacy Based Promotion Act, which mandated that in most cases, a student scoring at the lowest achievement level on the state-mandated third-grade achievement test won’t be promoted to fourth grade. Voilà! The weakest readers in third grade don’t move up to fourth grade, and the fourth-grade reading scores go up.
Have Mississippi's scores improved because of this new retention policy? Astoundingly, the policy, and its potential effects, went unmentioned in Hanford's piece, even though the topic had been widely discussed in the education press.
Instead, Hanford took her praise for Mississippi's reliance on "the science of reading" right outta the state's press release. Inevitably, her bowdlerized column ended up in the New York Times, where bullroar about the public schools goes to achieve eternal life.
To what extent have Mississippi's Naep scores been goosed by its retention policies? We have no way of knowing, though it seems that Mississippi retains moire kids than any other state.
That said, the notion that Mississippi's high Naep scores had resulted from the teaching of phonics never exactly made sense. Inevitably, Hanford's happy-talk piece ended up in the Times, the nation's biggest purveyor of know-nothing "takes" on the public schools.
Inevitably, Times subscribers believed what they read. It was time to teach phonics again! Look how those test scores had soared!
We've followed education writing since the 1960s. "Simple solution" tales of this type have always been popular favorites.
In one fairly recent example, a little-known former teacher named Michelle Rhee was picked to head the DC Public Schools. On her resume, she had long boasted about her success in the classroom—a boast which was based upon the test scores her kids had achieved, scores which were blatantly fraudulent.
Had Rhee surfed to success behind fraudulent claims? Papers like the Washington Post and the New York Times didn't want to go there. Their mammoth indifference and technical incompetence remain in place right to this day, especially in their growing devotion to "desegregation," the latest plainly absurd non-solution to the actual problem we face.
There's good and there's bad in our nation's Naep scores. The horrific part of the story can be found in such data as these:
Average scores, Grade 8 mathThe horror lies in those giant achievement gaps—but the Times refuses to report, describe or discuss the existence and the size of those gaps. As has been the case forever, the Times likes to wish them away.
American public schools, 2018 Naep
White kids: 291.46
Black kids: 259.21
Hispanic Kids: 267.96
Asian-American kids: 309.39
The horror lies in those gaps! So too with these recent scores on the Pisa, the subject of the first seven letters found in the Times that day:
Average scores, Reading literacy, 2019 PisaWe've including Estonia, the highest-scoring nation in the world on this particular test. We've also included miraculous Finland and one of the Asian tigers.
U.S., Asian-American kids: 556
U.S., white kids: 531
South Korea: 514
U.S., Hispanic kids: 481
U.S., black kids: 448
As anyone can see from the data, several groups of American kids scored amazingly well. The horror lies in the gaps between the different groups of American kids.
That said, please marvel at this:
In its gloomy report about these Pisa results, the New York Times didn't report or discuss those horrific gaps. This led the people who wrote the first seven letters that day to think that American schools are haplessly failing their kids across the board.
Go ahead! Read what they wrote!
We "liberals" have done this forever. We applaud the latest happy-talk story about the miraculous principal who "turned School A around."
We buy the latest fraudulent tale about the well-intentioned teacher who showed how easy it is to bring low-income kids to the top of the pile.
We pretend that Gotham is crawling with kids who could handle the Stuyvesant curriculum. This makes us feel like we're fully woke. It gives us the greatest gift of all. We feel good about ourselves!
Our leaders pimp this foofaw again and again all over the New York Times. In recent years, it's been pimped all over the paper's front page by the youngish daughter of the former gender editor. She's supervised by a newly-hired editor with no background in education.
In the process, papers like the New York Times refuse to tell readers the truth. You really have to hate black kids to posture and preen and play silly games in the way this newspaper does.
No, Virginia! There is no way to "desegregate" our way out of those horrible gaps. There's surely no way to do so in New York City, given the demographics of its giant school system.
And no, it isn't likely that we can deal with the actual problem we face by relying on the science of reading—by teaching phonics more than is currently done. By the way, to what extent is phonics currently taught in the nation's schools?
We'd assume that phonics is taught a great deal, but we don't actually know that. Very typically, Hanford didn't explore this obvious question in her piece for the Times.
What explains those giant gaps? Different people will present different answers. But we can't begin to seek serious answers if we insist on pretending that the gaps don't really exist—that the problem we currently face extends all across the board.
By the way, the gaps exist in Mississippi too. Here are the relevant data:
Average scores, Grade 4 readingApparently, the science of reading is working better for some kids than for others. Hanford didn't mention this fact. She clung to the safety, and to the denial, offered by aggregate scores.
Mississippi, 2018 Naep
White kids: 229.74
Black kids: 208.61
What explains our very large gaps? Tomorrow, we'll link you to an amazing story which provides one part of an answer.
But the problem, dear Brutus, lies in the gaps! Despite that blindingly obvious fact, super-woke papers like the Times will never stop spooning the happy-talk gruel that keeps us from grasping such facts.
"The fault, dear Brutus, is...in ourselves?" According to future anthropologists, we're hard-wired to be this dumb. Unless we decide to resist!
Tomorrow: A truly astonishing life