Famous journalist writes about low-income schools!


KRISTOF AMONG THE PROFESSORS: In last Thursday’s New York Times, Nicholas Kristof discussed a topic that is simply never discussed.

You didn’t see his column discussed at any normal “liberal” haunts. You see, Kristof discussed low-income schools. More precisely, he considered the interests of the low-income kids who attend such schools.

The liberal world quit on these kids long ago. To some extent, we thought this abandonment showed in Kristof’s rather puzzling column.

Let’s take this in three easy pieces. To read Kristof’s column, click here.

A murky framework: As he started his piece, Kristof proposed a rather murky framework. His column would discuss the potential benefits of expanded early childhood education. He tried to tie this topic to the basic framework of the Occupy Wall Street movement:
KRISTOF (10/20/11): Occupy the Classroom

Occupy Wall Street is shining a useful spotlight on one of America’s central challenges, the inequality that leaves the richest 1 percent of Americans with a greater net worth than the entire bottom 90 percent.

Most of the proposed remedies involve changes in taxes and regulations, and they would help. But the single step that would do the most to reduce inequality has nothing to do with finance at all. It’s an expansion of early childhood education.

Huh? That will seem naïve and bizarre to many who chafe at inequities and who think the first step is to throw a few bankers into prison. But although part of the problem is billionaires being taxed at lower rates than those with more modest incomes, a bigger source of structural inequity is that many young people never get the skills to compete. They’re just left behind.
If we may quote Kristof, “Huh?” Basically, this is a conceptual stretch. As Kristof notes, the Occupy movement is talking about “the inequality that leaves the richest 1 percent of Americans with a greater net worth than the entire bottom 90 percent.” It’s talking about an inequality from the top down—an inequality in which the top one percent wreak havoc on everyone else.

Expanding early childhood education might be a very good idea. But it wouldn’t address the type of inequality raised by the Occupy movement. If Kristof is right, expanded early childhood education might allow more low-income kids to aspire to the middle class.

But that’s a different type of “inequality.” All bad things aren’t alike.

Conceptually, we thought Kristof was stretching a bit. Might this suggest that our globe-trotting correspondent hadn’t thought his topic through?

Is early education the cure: We’ll assume it would be a good thing to expand early childhood education. But we thought Kristof was lost in the weeds with this standard feel-good happy-talk:
KRISTOF: One of the Harvard scholars I interviewed, David Deming, compared the outcomes of children who were in Head Start with their siblings who did not participate. Professor Deming found that critics were right that the Head Start advantage in test scores faded quickly. But, in other areas, perhaps more important ones, he found that Head Start had a significant long-term impact: the former Head Start participants are significantly less likely than siblings to repeat grades, to be diagnosed with a learning disability, or to suffer the kind of poor health associated with poverty. Head Start alumni were more likely than their siblings to graduate from high school and attend college.

Professor Deming found that in these life outcomes, Head Start had about 80 percent of the impact of the Perry program—a stunning achievement.
As always, Kristof had been speaking with an array of Harvard professors. In this case, Professor Deming may have done some very good work. But if Head Start has 80 percent of the impact of the Perry program, would that be "a stunning achievement?" Based on Kristof’s account of the Perry program, this would mean that Head Start kids would be 17 percent more likely to graduate from high school than their non-Head Start peers.

Yes, that’s an improvement. But graduation rates are quite low among poverty children. As best we can figure from Kristof’s column, this finding might mean that Head Start would raise the graduation rate among poverty kids from 50 percent to 58 percent (without an improvement in test scores along the way). If that’s the kind of gain we’re talking about, we wouldn’t call it “a stunning achievement”—unless our constant absence from the country has us mired in “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”

Don’t get us wrong! Kristof’s column provided Times readers with some good solid therapy. It let them feel good about pleasing possibilities—and, of course, it let them feel that they care about topics like this.

To us, his findings didn’t seem all that great. Was this column a true journalistic effort? Or was it mainly therapy?

What was missing from this analysis: Here, as always, we were struck by the dogs that didn’t bark.

When Kristof writes about public schools, he relies on what “experts” tell him. He has no independent experience on which he can draw. If the “experts” tell him that teacher quality is the most important variable, it may not occur to him that they really mean this: It’s the most important variable of which we’re aware, sitting here in our offices.

When Kristof talks about early childhood education, he thinks about one variable: Are kids getting it, or not? It doesn’t occur to him to ask his experts about what happens on a day-to-day basis when low-income kids do get into such programs.

For our money, the most interesting part of his column occurred early on. As usual, Kristof was talking to an expert:
KRISTOF: “This is where inequality starts,” said Kathleen McCartney, the dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, as she showed me a chart demonstrating that even before kindergarten there are significant performance gaps between rich and poor students. Those gaps then widen further in school.

“The reason early education is important is that you build a foundation for school success,” she added. “And success breeds success.”
Poverty kids are way behind their middle-class peers “even before kindergarten! “Those gaps then widen further in school.”

Question: Do those gaps widen further in school because of the ways these kids are instructed? Because their schools don’t adjust sufficiently for how far behind they are? Could it be that this even happens in Head Start? In other early education programs? Is it possible that these kids are sometimes pushed too hard, beyond their level of preparation, even before kindergarten?

We spend the first dozen years of our adult life teaching in low-income schools. True story: We have never seen a newspaper piece which talked about the most basic thing we observed in those years. We have never seen a newspaper piece which talked about the way low-income kids are constantly pushed beyond their level of preparation—are handed books they can’t really read, are exposed to instructional programs they can’t really keep up with.

Kristof likes to linger with Harvard professors. Sorry. In our experience, those lofty souls tend to be a bit cosseted too.

Did Deming describe “a stunning achievement?” Funny our side shouldn’t ask!


  1. That is a weird framing. It reads like an editor told him to keep it relevant to news today and he tried to tie it in with OWS. But part of what's maddening about the 1% having so much power is that they're not exceptionally qualified. They may have better educations, but they 90 times better educated than the average American. And lots of them are perfect idiots, too.

    If Kristof had been paying attention, he'd also know that being overeducated and not finding any work is a running theme in the OWS stories. How many of those people have a Bachelors or a Masters but can't find work and then show up at the protests? Given a system that doesn't reward education fairly, is it right to assume that pre-K education would change that system?

    On a related note, I only taught for 3 years, and I taught English here in France. I was moved around each year, but my first year I had two junior highs - one in a rich neighborhood and one in a poor neighborhood, right where I lived. They had the same funding, teachers from the same schools, same class size, same textbooks, etc.

    I had 7th-9th grade, and 9th grade was the last year lots of the kids in the poor school would be in school before taking on an apprenticeship. I showed up for my first day with the rich kids and they were half fluent. I could talk normally and most would understand if I didn't say anything too complicated. We had fun and did language projects and they learned a lot.

    In the other school, I said "Hello" and didn't even get a response. "How are you?" was met with silence - and this was after 6 years of English education. I wasn't supposed to teach English, just practice with them, but it's hard to practice when they don't know anything. Eventually they all stopped showing up to class and I didn't tell anyone. Not my proudest moment.

    Anyway, I think the education-net worth link works the other way: the more money you have, the better education you get.

  2. All this is well and good, but when will we ever see chapter 6 of "How He Got there" ?

  3. Bob Somerby says the richest 1 percent of Americans, with a greater net worth than the entire bottom 90 percent, "wreak havoc on everyone else." I disagree.

    Most of those in the top 1% got there by earning, saving, and investing. E.g., by saving $10,000 per year and investing the money in stocks yielding 10%, a family will accumulate a million dollars in 25 years. Saving and investing is how most families with net worth above a million dollars got there. Did such a family "wreak havoc" by their prudence? Of course not. In fact, the money they put into stocks provided capital that helped the economy to run.

    Billionaire Steve Jobs was "a visionary who made it his mission to humanize personal computing, rewriting the rules of user experience design, hardware design and software design. His actions reverberated across industry lines: He shook up the music business, dragged the wireless carriers into the boxing ring, changed the way software and hardware are sold and forever altered the language of computer interfaces. Along the way, he built Apple up into one of the most valuable corporations in the world." He didn't "wreak havoc on everyone else." He was one of mankind's great benefactors.

    JK Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, Barbra Streisand, and other wealthy entertainers gave pleasure to millions. GE CEO Jeff Immelt ran a company that made products useful to millions of people.

    Now, one can argue whether these wealthy people made more than they deserve. But, even if you think they did, I don't see how one can get to a conclusion that they "wreaked havoc on everyone else."

  4. I'm sorry, but Somerby is waaaaay off the mark here.

    I'm with Kristoff. Early childhood education/care/activities is the one of the best things we as a society can provide to all our children. This will have a huge impact. And it makes practical sense.

    It's not "education" as much as it is support for one's families. And it starts at birth. We are the only Western country that does not require PAID maternity/paternity leave and mandates only a small amount of time of unpaid leave. As a new father I simply can't imagine being a single parent and working near the poverty line. It's a horrible punishment we put children through, actually. We should be paying mothers to stay home with their children. That is "investing" in children in a way that will pay off for all of society. When we force the stereotypical 18 year old single mother to go back to Wal Mart 4 weeks after giving birth this has terrible effects on the family.

    And this is a huge burden on working class families. Instead of interviewing an academic Kristoff should have gotten a couple of anecdotal examples of families or single mothers raising children under 5. Or maybe compared someone at the 25% percentile,for instance, with someone in Sweden that is at the same income level.

    I think Bob shows less of an understanding than Kristol does. I think both reveal their class bias because neither really looks at the issue from the perspective of parents with income at the poverty level and what that means in their day to day lives.

    It's not that 3 to 5 year olds aren't being "educated" in the proper method . . . it's the fact that life is really hard on someone living this way. You try being a single parent of a small child and having to work for $20,000 a year. Child care is a huge concern. If we really did care about these children we would pay mothers the equivalent of $30,000 for up to one year of maternity care (promoting breast feeding as well), we would have socialized health care with birthing and early childhood neighborhood clinics, and we would have universal day care for children under 5. Think of the number of good jobs that would be created by a measure like this. Talk about stimulating the economy!

  5. I apologize for my lack of editing. I was in a hurry and that was particularly bad.

  6. David - You can point to a few examples of people who didn't wreak havoc to make tons of money, but after the financial crisis of 2007 and all the reports we've seen since then - of financiers basically robbing funds they were meant to be managing and then running with the money - it's hard to believe that most people in the 1% worked a normal job and just saved 10K a year or that most people in the 1% ran companies that revolutionized consumer electronics.

    Anyway, I think the near-destruction of the global economy counts as "wreaking havoc."

  7. It's the poverty --- and attendant family dysfunction --- stupid.

    We can do laps around this track for ever and ever and ever, but will always come back to poverty, broken families, and our the legacy of race --- all of which feed off of each other.

    Bob did a nice job of eviscerating that godawful documentary, "Waiting for Superman." Diane Ravitch has had a lot of powerful things to say lately, too, especially since she has abandoned the charter-school myth she herself admits she once helped perpetuate, if not create.

  8. @David in Cal:
    Gee, you forgot to add the great works of the Trumpster, Paris Hilton, Bernie Madoff, Ken Lay, Jeff Sklilling, the guys at AIG, Bear Stearns, Lehmann Brothers, Merrill-Lynch, Country Wide, Washington Mutual, Citigroup, Enron, Adelphia, Morgan Stanley, all the sub prime mortgages, the creators of credit default swaps, the credit ratings agencies that gave their blessings to all the financial shenanigans of Wall Street. Other than that, we ordinary mortals should all be kissing the feet of the "job creators." Steve Forbes earned his billions the old fashioned way, he inherited them from his dada. Steve Forbes, Mr. Flat Tax, great for the billionaires but rotten for the lower classes.

  9. "Or maybe compared someone at the 25% percentile,for instance, with someone in Sweden that is at the same income level."

    You mean the place with all the white people?

    "I think Bob shows less of an understanding than Kristol does."


  10. David in CA sez:

    [irrational supposition; irrelevant anecdote]

  11. Anonymous, yes Bernie Madoff and Ken Lay were crooks who did a lot of harm. There are lots of poor crooks, too.

    But, the rest of the list is just a list. How did the people and organizations listed hurt you? How did it hurt you when Steve Forbes inherited a lot of money that his father had earned?

  12. This  psycho white nationalist site actually got this part right I think:

    Mandating frequent testing of K-12 students to solve the problem of cognitive inequality always struck me as much like trying to solve the problem of height inequality by requiring that everybody play a lot of basketball. That wouldn't make short people taller—it would just make their shortness more obvious.

    But now, I think, I've finally stumbled upon the wacky analogy unconsciously underlying the conventional wisdom about how moreschool testing would Leave No Child Behind. So I'm going to take some time to explain the mental framework behind so much of mainstream school reform thinking, as exemplified by Bush'spopular soundbite on "the soft bigotry of low expectations".

    The NCLB Fiasco After Ten Years: What Were Bush And Kennedy Thinking? | VDARE.com


  13. How do people like Steve Forbes or the Koch brothers hurt me? They are not paying their fair share in taxes, they support right wing pro corporate think tanks that are all over the media pumping up and pimping anti Social Security, anti Medicare, anti Medicaid, anti-union, anti-ordinary people agendas. Forbes is a billionaire with a strong media presence who can pick up his phone and get the ears of media people, congressmen, politicians, judges and presidents. He can throw millions behind right wing regressive candidates. Forbes is giving his support to Perry of TX who happens to think that SS is a Ponzi scheme, wants to allow oil and coal companies to pollute with impunity and is promoting the pro billionaire flat tax. Forbes is against any regulations that protect ordinary Americans like me. Those are just a few of the ways that a crypto fascist like Forbes can hurt me. Oh wait, and did I mention that he is fighting tooth and nail 24/7 to make sure that the top 1% pay even less taxes.

  14. I see Kristof doing what a lot of high-end "liberals" doing, which is to set up an either-or scenario rather than a both-and one, and thus deflect attention from what's really at issue. Yes, it would be best if all children from low-income families had Head Start and, as Bob Somerby says, if instead of rigid, test-focused academics they encountered teachers who were allowed both to meet them where they were and to set the highest standards for them. As someone who taught inner-city public school children, I can tell you that the ones I worked with were mostly unprepared for the classes they were in, but that did not mean they didn't want to learn, that didn't mean they didn't learn, and that didn't mean they couldn't advance intellectually (and emotionally) by the end of the school year.

    But, what Kristof's also up to, as I see it, is this: by deflecting the focus from effective political, economic strategies to reduce inequality, such as returning 1) to the Clinton-era rates or 2) to Eisenhower-era rates; imposing a financial tax or windfall profits tax or bonus tax on Wall Street; rewriting the tax code so that shipping jobs overseas would not be financially beneficial and expedient for corporations; pushing the Congress to get tough with China as opposed to coddling it; addressing the problem of runaway health care costs by implementing Medicare-for-all or a public option or single-payer systems; and so on, he can engage in what Bob Somerby calls "therapy," which is what he usually does whenever he's writing about the US. He can call foreign dictators and their wacked out economic systems out, but as is so often the case when he, Friedman and others write about the US, they refuse to name names, they take some important thread and blow it up so that it obscures what's really at stake, and they expect people to pat them on the back for making a fine argument, when the reality is that they've only scratched one side of what is actually a polyhedral subject. Perhaps one of these days soon someone can tell Kristof and his ilk this to their face; my experience is that you can't get in a word edgewise with these folks, except with Paul Krugman, who is among the few who really knows what he's talking about and can prove it.

  15. Anonymous -- To say that a rich person pays less tax than you think he should doesn't mean he's harming you. Here's a joke from Fiddler on the Roof:

    A donor gives a beggar one kopek.

    "Why only one kopek?" asks the beggar. "You usually give two kopeks."

    "I had a bad week," replies the donor.

    "If you had a bad week," responds the beggar, "why should I have to suffer?"

    Let's say Steve Forbes pays $1 million per year in taxes. That money is used for the public programs you believe in. It does a lot of good. If Forbes paid $2 million, his tax money would do even more good. But, his tax money isn't doing harm. And, it's doing a lot more good than the tax money of people who pay much less tax, like you and me.

    Perry is right about Social Security being like a Ponzi scheme. I'm an actuary: I ought to know. SS is like a Ponzi Scheme because its liabilities are unfunded. Benefits are pretty much paid out of new money coming in, rather than from accumulated contributions.

    Many leading economists have called SS a Ponzi scheme. E.g.,

    -- Nobel prize winner Paul Samuelson wrote: "Social Security is a Ponzi Scheme that Works."

    -- Nobel Prize winner Milton Friedman called social security "The Biggest Ponzi Scheme on Earth."

    -- Nobel Prize winner and liberal icon Paul Krugman wrote in 1996: "In practice [Social Security] has turned out to be strongly redistributionist, but only because of its Ponzi game aspect, in which each generation takes more out than it put in."

  16. Alex Blaze wrote: If Kristof had been paying attention, he'd also know that being overeducated and not finding any work is a running theme in the OWS stories. How many of those people have a Bachelors or a Masters but can't find work and then show up at the protests? Given a system that doesn't reward education fairly...

    Does the system not reward education fairly? I think it's the other way 'round. Employers aren't supposed to reward whatever education an employee happens to have; the employee is supposed to prepare to do the work needed by employers. I blame the higher education system for educating too many students in ways that are not valuable in the job market.

  17. From an August 2010 Paul Krugman article:
    "Social Security turned 75 last week. It should have been a joyous occasion, a time to celebrate a program that has brought dignity and decency to the lives of older Americans.
    Social Security’s attackers claim that they’re concerned about the program’s financial future. But their math doesn’t add up, and their hostility isn’t really about dollars and cents. Instead, it’s about ideology and posturing. And underneath it all is ignorance of or indifference to the realities of life for many Americans.
    It would be easy to dismiss this bait-and-switch as obvious nonsense, except for one thing: many influential people — including Alan Simpson, co-chairman of the president’s deficit commission — are peddling this nonsense.


    What’s really going on here? Conservatives hate Social Security for ideological reasons: its success undermines their claim that government is always the problem, never the solution. But they receive crucial support from Washington insiders, for whom a declared willingness to cut Social Security has long served as a badge of fiscal seriousness, never mind the arithmetic.

    And neither wing of the anti-Social-Security coalition seems to know or care about the hardship its favorite proposals would cause.


    So let’s beat back this unnecessary, unfair and — let’s not mince words — cruel attack on working Americans. Big cuts in Social Security should not be on the table."

    Now that does NOT sound like a man who thinks SS is a Ponzi scheme. Krugman obvioulsy supports SS so don't do a gotcha and bring up a stale outdated 1996 quote that Krugman repudiated a long time ago in 1996, a few weeks after that initial quote.

  18. Anonymous, maybe you're unclear about what it means to say SS is Ponzi. That's just a description of how the system is structured. It doesn't mean the program is good or bad. It doesn't mean that SS should be continued, ended, expanded, or whatever. Krugman's comments that you quoted neither support nor refute the fact that SS resembles a Ponzi scheme.

  19. David in Cal said...

    Pretty funny stuff. 9-)

  20. Social Security is fully funded for years and years. There is no crisis whatsoever.

    David in CA is flat out lying.

    Don't anyone believe the lying people who are trying to steal your Social Security.

    Fight them. They are spreading lies to try to steal the money we have paid in -- to send it to wall street.

    Fight. Do not put up with or listen to those lies. Educate yourselves, do not fall for their theft.

  21. Somerby thinks that the unaddressed topic is educational programs inadequate designed to handle the deficit of "poverty kids" (Why he doesn't call them impoverished kids, I don't know.) I think the unaddressed issue is simply poverty, because once you say the "p" word, you press all sorts of conservative buttons on race and urban vs. rural culture. Yes, there is a gap that is apparent even before kids get to school, and part of it is coming from an impoverished household -- economic struggles overwhelm a parent's ability to be his/her child's primary teacher. And make no mistake, parents ARE their children's primary teachers.

  22. Social Security is a successful 75 year old program that has not missed a payment through wars and recessions. It's not a Ponzi scheme, it's not like a Ponzi scheme, it's not similar to a Ponzi scheme. SS's books are open to the public for all to see. It's finances and projections are published for all to scrutinize and evaluate. A Ponzi scheme is a fraud, its actual accounting books are hidden from the public, its actual inner workings are kept secret because, you know, it's a frikking fraud. SS is not a fraud there is no Charles Ponzi, the head of the SSA is not running away with millions in compensation and the administrative costs of SS are very low. Do not believe the lies that SS is a Ponzi scheme.....not even close.

  23. Even Alan Greenspan, of all people, a libertarian Ayn Rand acolyte, has said that Social Security is not in crisis. In 2007, on Meet The Press, Greenspan said that SS is not in crisis and that its long term issues can be tweaked by any number of fixes. The sky is not falling and SS does not need major surgery or major cuts. Don't listen to the lies, there is a SS trust fund worth $2.6 trillion and it's earning interest all the time. They are NOT worthless IOU's, they are special issue treasury bonds that are just as valid as the bonds held by China and other countries, just as valid as the treasuries held by millions of Americans, just as valid as our currency. Fight the right wing liars.