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 ClassroomIf 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.
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.
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.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.
Professor Deming found that in these life outcomes, Head Start had about 80 percent of the impact of the Perry program—a stunning achievement.
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.Poverty kids are way behind their middle-class peers “even before kindergarten! “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.”
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!