A BASIC LACK OF SKILL: Why do we hate black kids so?


Epilogue—State of the NAEP: Good lord! Over the weekend, a rational discussion almost broke out concerning the nation’s low-income schools!

First, Gene Lyons wrote this piece at Salon. Among other things, he noted that today’s black kids score better on the NAEP math test than their white counterparts did in the not-too-distant past. (Black fourth graders scored higher this year than white fourth graders in 1990.)

This Sunday, in response to Lyons, Kevin Drum offered this post at Mother Jones. He then offered this second, follow-up post. A discussion had almost broken out! Such things simply aren’t done!

Might we offer a point about liberal interest in low-income schools? On Sunday, Drum’s two posts about the NAEP received 17 and nine comments. That same day, his post about left-eared versus right-eared hearing attracted 53 comments; a post about democracy in Europe garnered 36. As has long been clear, the liberal world pays little attention to low-income schools or the kids who attend them. We quit on black kids a long time ago—although we love to bleat and bray about all those conservative racists.

To his vast credit, Drum does pay attention to such topics. We thought we’d offer a few reactions to his twin Sunday posts.

How happy should American be about the state of NAEP scores? We’re not sure, but we do think Kevin tends to tilt toward gloom a tad when he reviews these data. Before explaining that impression, let’s establish a few basic points:

The NAEP runs two separate studies: Just so you’ll know, the National Assessment of Education Progress (the NAEP) conducts two parallel studies—the so-called “Main NAEP” and the “Long-Term Trend” study. At the NAEP’s central site, you can choose which study you want to review.

The “Main NAEP” tests students in reading and math (and some other subjects) in fourth, eighth and twelfth grades. The “Long-Term Trend” study tests 9-year-olds, 13-year-olds and 17-year olds in the same basic subjects.

Which study is more valuable? We have no idea. If education reporters ever chose to report on this “gold standard” testing program, they might even ask NAEP officials and other experts about the rationale for running twin studies.

In the past, we have presented the results from both studies. We know of no particular reason to favor one over the other.

The problem with 17-year-olds: In its own “Main NAEP” reports, the NAEP stresses the scores of fourth- and eighth-graders while downplaying or ignoring the scores of twelfth-graders. We’ve never seen anyone explain this practice. But then, “education reporters” rarely explain anything in our failing culture.

For ourselves, we stay away from the scores of the oldest students in these twin studies; we do so because of the drop-out factor. Consider the Long-Term Trend study. At ages 9 and 13, almost all kids are still in school. But by the age of 17, a lot of kids have dropped out of school—and the NAEP only tests the student population.

But uh-oh! Over the years, the drop-out rate has changed, in ways which are hard to measure. This means that an “apples to oranges” factor may be in play when we compare average scores over time at this age level.

If education reporters ever did real reporting, they might ask NAEP officials and other experts to speak to this general issue. But as far as we know, more kids remain in school at age 17 than was the case in the past. If true, this complicates any attempt to compare average scores over time.

A one-time change in procedure: During the 1990s, the NAEP instituted a basic, one-time change in its testing procedure. It began permitting “accommodations”—allowing “students with disabilities and English language learners” to take the tests under special conditions. Plainly, this creates a bit of an apples-to-oranges problem if we want to compare average scores from before and after the institution of these procedures.

In our own past work on NAEP scores, we have tried to adjust for this one-time change. On the surface, this can make a difference in the size of score gains.

(For the most part, student populations recorded lower average scores when the “students with disabilities and English language learners” were first added into the mix. The NAEP measured this change in the years when this change in procedure was instituted.)

Having made these observations, we would offer these reactions to Drum’s recent posts on this topic. We’ve gained a lot from reading Kevin’s post on education topics over the years. But in our view, he tends to tilt a tad toward gloom when he assesses the NAEP. A few more observations:

The score gains in math count as news: Math and reading are the two basic skills measured by the NAEP. On both NAEP studies, gains in math scores have been larger than gains in reading scores.

But please note: The gains in math scores have tended to range from very large to enormous. If there were no score gains in reading at all, the apparent gains in math skills would be a massive news story. At a time when citizens are constantly told that nothing has worked in the public schools, it’s simply astounding that these score gains have gone unremarked, unreported.

How big are the gains in math scores? On Drum’s second post from Sunday, his graph shows black eighth-graders scoring 2.5 years higher in math in 2011 than their counterparts from 1992. If those apparent gains are real, they represent an astounding success story, even if no gains have been accomplished in reading at all. That said, your nation’s “education reporters” have persistently failed and/or refused to report these score gains, even as they robotically refer to the NAEP as the “gold standard” of testing.

But then, you live inside a hall or mirrors. Your “press corps” is run by chimps.

Here’s where Drum’s tendency toward gloom surfaced in a third recent post, although he isn’t one of the chimps. He did his first report on the latest NAEP scores a few weeks ago (click here). But he only cited the reading scores, completely skipping math.

Over the past ten to twenty years, NAEP math scores seem to indicate very large progress. This is a very large news story. In even a modestly rational world, the public would have been told.

How large are the score gains in reading: How large are the score gains in reading? It depends on which study you use and when you start your comparison. As Drum noted in his second Sunday post, the reading gains look a bit better on the “Main NAEP” than in the “Long-Term Trend” study. In neither case are the score gains in reading as large as the score gains in math.

That said, let’s do the following: Let’s look at the gains in reading on the Main NAEP starting in 1998, the first year “accommodations” were permitted. This permits a clean, apples-to-apples assessment of the two student populations. These are the gains in reading scores recorded by black and Hispanic kids over that 13-year period:
Score gains, NAEP reading tests, 1998-2011
Black fourth-graders: 12 points (1.2 years)
Hispanic fourth-graders: 13 points (1.3 years)

Black eighth-graders: 5 points (0.5 years)
Hispanic eighth-graders: 9 points (0.9 years)
You can assess the size of those score gains yourself. But here are the corresponding gains in math scores. In this case, we’ll measure from 1996, the first year accommodations were permitted in math:
Score gains, NAEP math tests, 1996-2011
Black fourth-graders: 26 points (2.6 years)
Hispanic fourth-graders: 22 points (2.2 years)

Black eighth-graders: 22 points (2.2 years)
Hispanic eighth-graders: 19 points (1.9 years)
Those score gains are extremely large. It’s astounding that your nation’s “education reporters” haven’t told the public about these apparent gains in math skills—especially at a time when public school teachers are under relentless attack, from the nation's irate billionaires, for their inept performance.

But then, we don’t live in a functioning democracy. We don’t have a functioning intellectual or journalistic culture. We live in a balls-out idiocracy, just as Mike Judge showed us. Significant facts almost never get reported in this idiocratic world.

What do those NAEP scores really mean? Have math skills really improved that much? We don’t know, and there is no chance that the actors hired to pose as “education reporters” will ever try to find out. But one other group must be named at this time:

That would be us liberals.

We liberals must be the most horrible people found on the face of the earth. When it comes to insults to black kids, we’d put Lawrence and Rachel among the worst—but we do seem to function quite well as a group. We love to parade about the land, bragging about our vast racial greatness. But we quit on black kids a long time ago. With the rare exception of people like Drum, you couldn’t make us discuss their interests if you had a big can of orange spray aimed at our grandmothers’ faces.

What have black kids ever done to make us liberals hate them so? We can’t answer that question. But were the shoe on the other tribal foot, R- and B-bombs would fall on the land, causing vast destruction.

Dear lord, how good it would make us feel! How we love to announce our own greatness!


  1. It's amazing that one has to read a blog on the subject of media, written by a single individual, to learn some basic facts about the results of the NAEP tests over time. Well done, Mr. Somerby!

  2. Thank you for keeping up this line of discussion, Mr. Somerby. I think of it as one of the most important things you've done, along with your excellent discussion during the health insurance reform debate--you were one of the only places to find this information, along with Paul Krugman and James Fallows--of the basic, per-person costs differentials between US health care spending and those of our major foreign peers. One of the only sites. You were also one of the only people anywhere to talk about the disastrous press treatment first of Bill Clinton and Al Gore, and then of John Kerry, and then of Hillary Clinton. And you have returned repeatedly to the topic of the horrendous treatment of public education in this country.

    I'll just add, however, that so many people have been hoodwinked over the years that they totally buy into the myths about public education. It's very hard to change people's minds, even people who went to public schools and who've done well. All they see, and all most of the public sees and hears, is a sustained tirade against public education, against public school teachers, against teachers' unions, against the very idea of education paid for by all tax payers as a public good. This is part of a longterm ideological push towards privatization, and I really fear it is succeeding. Another major problem with journalistic discussion of the topic is that unlike in earlier generations, when many journalists came from the working and middle classes and attended public schools, today's journalists often are like Bill Keller or Alexandra Petri, the children of (often great) privilege, who attended private schools from childhood on and have no sense of what's going on in public schools. Davis Guggenheim, the director of the sham documentary Waiting for Superman, attended Sidwell Friends and Brown University, and is educating his children at private institutions.

    This is not to say that people from privileged backgrounds who have only attended and worked at private institutions cannot understand public education, but if they have no real exposure, they might be more likely, as is the case with Guggenheim, to "believe the hype," as Chuck D brilliantly put it. As always, the question is what to do? Liberals of all colors can't be bothered. The right-wingers push their anti-public-education, anti-society and anti-commons agenda hard. So what about the rest of us?

  3. Something that David in Cal and I can finally agree on...

  4. Thank you. I was one of those liberals who assumed the educational system was a disaster and the root cause was cultural. Now I find out from a blogger that progress is being made and at union schools no less. Extraordinary. It would be nice if more people knew that real success was possible and actually happening.

  5. Bob, Thanks for caring about this. I have followed your and Kevin's attention to this issue for a while now and feel better informed for it. That being said, I feel like this is still just the START of a good discussion on public education. How can this be expanded to become a more comprehensive and continuing engagement and include a much bigger audience ?

  6. Sad to say, but practically all of my thoughts on the US education system were based on counter-factual misinformation prior to discovering this blog.

    Sad to say? I guess that doesn't quite begin to describe it.

    It's just staggering how lazy and scripted our press is on this enormously important subject. Maddening.

  7. Bob, you can't measure actual interest by the number of blog comments, as you surely know. There's interest, and then there's having opinions.

    In order to have a semi-intelligent opinion, you have to have at least some grasp of the subject. As you yourself have pointed out over and over and over and over again, the reporting and public information on the subject is woeful-- murky, often contradictory, badly sourced and analyzed, episodic, often flat-out nonsensical. IOW, almost none of us actually do have any kind of grasp on the subject. Given that fact, it's actually good thing if people are reading but keeping their traps shut.

  8. Great post and good links. Sad to know that kids are smarter today than when I was in school - I was kinda hopin' it was all downhill after me. j/k.

  9. I'll chime in too....Thanks, Bob, for your terrific writing on education. I too would be totally ignorant about this topic (having gotten my knowledge from the NYT, Washington Post, and television news) if it weren't for this blog and your astute commentary. I went to Sidwell with Davis Guggenheim (nice guy, at least at the time - I can't speak to now) and it saddens me whenever a product of Sidwell Friends becomes misdirected.

  10. Thanks Bob-
    As always great observations on education and
    Black schoolchildren. On the Conservative end of the spectrum it is scary to realize how many respected commentators on what is wrong with education seem to believe and espouse that the best way to handle poor minority students is to simply acknowledge that they are not educable and to simply stop providing them with any sort of education public or private.One prominent promoter of this view is conservative writer and Blogger Robert Wiseberg.As far as the liberals go
    your point is well taken- With friends like these
    Black kids do not need any enemies.

  11. Bob Somerby wrote:

    We liberals...love to parade about the land, bragging about our vast racial greatness. But we quit on black kids a long time ago....

    But were the shoe on the other tribal foot, R- and B-bombs would fall on the land, causing vast destruction.

    Dear lord, how good it would make us feel! How we love to announce our own greatness!

    IMHO Bob's observations are illustrated by liberals' treatment of David Blackwell. I recall a Time-Life book from the 1960's that included a page on Blackwell. He was a black man and a brilliant mathematician. It was noteworthy that a black man had co-created a field of mathematics, Dynamic Programming. Also, he was a wonderful teacher, as I know from attending one of his lectures. He had the ability to exppklain things with such understanding that complex things looked simple.

    As I say, Blackwell got a certain amount of (justifiable) fame in the 1960's. He continued to teach and publish until he died last year. Yet, his fame didn't grow. There was no effort to make him a national figure. I never saw him interviewed or even mentioned on any liberal talk show.

    Apparently, Blackwell was not of use to liberals. His accomplishments didn't feed liberals' egos, because Blackwell had done his work himself. Blackwell's achievements weren't some kind of affirmative action gift from liberals. And, Blackwell's success wasn't useful in attacking conservatives. So, liberals didn't make Blackwell a national figure.

    Liberals could have promoted Blackwell as an inspriration to black children. His achievements could have been used to encourage black children to excel in mathematics. However, as Bob Somerby pointed out, liberals don't actually care about black children.

  12. It goes back to the Sista Souljah minute. In their zeal not to lose or to regain the white middle class -- understandable from a sheer numbers standpoint -- liberals have failed miserably at showing how poverty is a huge drag on the economy, something that hurts everyone. It makes more taxes necessary and drags down wages for everyone outside the executive suite. Of course, the best anti-poverty program is a jobs program; it should have been a piece of cake to connect the interests of the middle class with low-income Americans.

  13. What gyrfalcon said. Thanks, Bob, for the link to the Gene Lyons article. I've been trying to catch up on this "Race to the Top" fiasco he spotlights.

  14. Hey David in Cal . Thanks for the info about the great Dr.Blackwell. I plan to spend the rest of my thanksgiving weekend learning all about him.

  15. What can we do when teachers are teaching but children aren’t learning? For example, when NAEP results are analyzed by ethnicity or language and they show that over 50% of black and Hispanic students fail to learn to read at the basic level by 4th grade. Will these kids learn to deal drugs and steal cars and then spend years in jail at great expense to taxpayers?

    In Other Counties, Free TV Captions Help Millions. In a brief video, former President Bill Clinton, at his Clinton Global Initiative, praises India for using television’s same language subtitles to teach 150 million to read. See the Clinton video that comes up as you open www.youtube.com/watch?v=juZOlmf9APk. Or check out www.youtube.com/watch?v=eHh9azJHO6Q for a short video of a young boy learning to read and write with free TV captions here in the U.S.

    How TV Captions Help Learning To Read. Free TV captions create an unrivaled opportunity for learners to connect the sound of the spoken word with the sight of the printed word in the context of the action unfolding on the screen to explain and reinforce the meaning.

    Not More TV, But Better TV With Free Captions. Nobody recommends spending more time in front of the tube, but when the average child watches television 4 to 7 hours a day anyhow, turning on the free TV captions can transform those thousands of hours each year into reading practice at home for toddlers, struggling students or English language learners. Not all kids will learn right away, but over time, TV captions can have a positive impact on reading ability for many.

    TV Captions Are A Supplement, Not A Substitute. We know that free TV captions don’t replace books or teachers, but they are a free resource to supplement books and teachers for practicing reading. We know that TV captions cannot substitute for the warmth of a family member reading to a child. But when there is no family member available to read to the kids, where there is only a single parent with two jobs and little free time or where a foreign language is spoken at home because the adults cannot yet read English or if it’s just plain difficult or impossible to muster the time or skill, TV captions can be the urgently needed help.

    Turn ‘Em, On. TV captions can be turned on with a click of the CC button on the remote control or the use of the television set’s menu so turn ‘em on. .

    Federal Legislation Is In Place. Since January 2006, federal mandates, initially for the deaf, require free TV captions to be available 20 out of 24 hours a day on virtually all programs on almost all stations. Though legislation makes TV captions free for viewers, they’re expensive for producers. It seems scandalous to squander the price producers and others pay to provide TV captions free to viewers but not to tell viewers of their universal availability and educational power.

    The Research Has Been Done. Programs like Between the Lions and over 20 years of rigorous scientific studies validate the effectiveness of TV captions for learning to read.

    Dissemination And Implementation Are What We Need Now. The problem is that most families (and many teachers) are unaware of the near universal availability of free TV captions and the value of practicing reading with free TV captions. Who do you know that needs to learn to read English? Could it be such people as children, grandchildren or neighbors?

     A three year old who needs print aware¬ness to start kindergarten?
     The 4th grader who is in the bottom half of the class who can’t yet read at the basic level?
     The underprivileged inner city youth?
     The kid who is so discouraged with trying to read 11th grade texts that he wants to drop out of high school?
     The struggling immigrant family who needs help to read English?

    The resources are there. You just need to turn them on. Best of all, TV captions are absolutely free for viewers.