A BASIC LACK OF SKILLS: A piece of D-minus reporting!


Part 2—The press corps lacks basic skills more: Endlessly, your press corps pretends to discuss the state of the nation’s public schools. Potemkin reporters wring their hands about the basic skills of fourth-graders.

But what about the basic skills of these reporters themselves?

It isn’t pretty when the press corps writes about the schools. Sometimes, know-nothing experts front scripted reports despite their manifest lack of competence. Fareed Zakaria has been fronting such twaddle on CNN in recent weeks (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/15/11).

But does the skill level really improve when we read the work of education reporters? Consider Sam Dillon’s D-minus report in the November 2 New York Times.

One day before, the Department of Education had released the latest results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the widely-hailed “gold standard” of educational testing. On a semi-annual basis, the NAEP tests fourth- and eighth-graders in reading and math. By all accounts, this program produces the most reliable data in all of American testing.

If you want to review the state of the schools, this is one of the places you start. But what would you say about Dillon’s basic skills? In our most famous newspaper, he penned this eye-catching opening paragraph about these important new data:
DILLON (11/2/11): Elementary and middle school students have improved greatly in math, but their reading skills have stagnated over the last two decades, federal officials said on Tuesday.
Ouch! The reading skills of our public school students “have stagnated over the last two decades!” That’s what Dillon said in his opening paragraph, sourcing the claim to federal officials. But how strong are Dillon’s basic skills? Note what happened when he actually quoted one of those federal officials:
DILLON (11/2/11): Elementary and middle school students have improved greatly in math, but their reading skills have stagnated over the last two decades, federal officials said on Tuesday.

The officials, who oversee the largest federal standardized testing program, used the release of scores from nationwide math and reading exams to highlight the contrasting long-term trends.

"We've made major gains in math over two decades, but, in reading, frankly, we haven't—there've been only modest improvements," said David Driscoll, the chairman of the governing board that oversees the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the Department of Education's standardized testing program.
According to that federal official, our students have made “modest improvements” in reading. To Dillon, this meant that their skills have “stagnated.”

Do those two claims mean the same thing? Granted, Dillon scored a dramatic first paragraph due to his paraphrase of Driscoll. But is modest improvement the same as stagnation?

We would have to say it isn’t—at least, that’s what we’d tell a fifth-grader. But at the nation’s most famous newspaper, it’s close enough for journalistic work! After all, think how dull it would have been to read this opening paragraph:
DILLON REWRITTEN: Elementary and middle school students have improved greatly in math, but their reading skills have shown “modest improvement” over the last two decades, federal officials said on Tuesday.
That’s a very different story. It’s less dramatic, and therefore dull. On the other hand, it’s a more accurate account of what Driscoll said—and it’s a good deal less gloomy.

Dillon went on to do his usual D-minus work as he reported these test scores. He spent little time describing the scores. Instead, he started quoting experts offering their views of the scores. “Mr. Driscoll and other officials and experts put forward several hypotheses to explain the trends,” he wrote as he continued. Soon, he was offering this worthless bit of bafflegab to his under-served readers:
DILLON: "I'm disappointed but not surprised by these results," said Sharon Darling, founder of the National Center for Family Literacy, a group based in Kentucky that works to help parents support their children's educational efforts at home. "Children spend five times as much time outside the classroom as they do in school, and our country has 30 million parents or caregivers who are not good readers themselves, so they pass illiteracy down to their children."
Who the Sam Hill is Sharon Darling? We don’t know either, but Dillon was soon wasting our time with her fuzzy views about the test scores he had barely attempted to describe.

What do those test scores actually show? As Dillon noted, there was little change from the scores recorded in 2009, the last round of NAEP testing. But no one expects dramatic gains to occur over two-year intervals.

That said, Dillon adopted a broader, more significant focus right from his opening paragraph. He discussed the way these scores have changed “over the last two decades.” In truth, some fairly dramatic changes have been recorded over the course of those twenty years. But Dillon made virtually no attempt to report what they are.

In part, this is the fault of Dillon’s editors. His piece ran only 657 words—but within that fairly short report, he covered a wide range of topics. For example, his last three paragraphs covered the way NAEP scores in the state of New York have changed since 1992 and 2009. That burned 161 words off his already-short report.

Forget the most recent two-year period. What do we see if we take a more detailed look at the changes in these scores from 1992 through 2011? If we apply some bone-simple basic skills to our review of these data?

In our view, we see some striking changes—although it’s true that the growth in math still outpaces the growth in reading. But Dillon failed to employ the simplest skills as he reported the sweep of these data.

The nation’s children do lack basic skills. Your “press corps” lacks basic skills more.

Tomorrow: A very basic skill—“disaggregation”

Applying some basic skills: As readers may recall, we chuckled a bit at Dillon’s report on the day it appeared. Basic skills simply don’t get any more basic than this:
DILLON: It has been 20 years since Congressionally mandated changes in the federal testing program took effect, prompting officials this year to examine the long-term results more closely than usual, officials said.

In 1990, 13 percent of fourth graders scored at the proficient level in math; this year, 40 percent were proficient, a gain of 27 percentage points.

Reading performance, in contrast, has seen much smaller improvements. In 1992, 29 percent of fourth-grade students were proficient in reading; this year, 34 percent scored at the proficient level, a gain of five percentage points.
If Dillon hadn’t done the subtraction, would you have known that we gained five points when 29 rose to 34? We don’t think we’ve ever seen a reporter make this sort of thing so simple.

On the other hand, if federal officials are “examining the long-term results more closely than usual,” no sign of that effort made its way into Dillon’s report. His report was D-minus work—and a disservice to his readers.

But then, your press corps routinely pretends to discuss the state of the schools.


  1. IMHO the Times often strains to put a dramatic contrast into the lede. They love the word "but". In this case, scores improved in both math and reading, so the Times could have written:

    Elementary and middle school students have improved greatly in math, and their reading skills have shown modest improvement...

  2. Why go to Finland and South Korea? You can fly to Ottawa Hills in Ohio; see an excellent school district with exceptionally smart students and a teacher's union. This happens in homogenous districts with parents who have college educations and earn decent wages. It is against the "rules" to mention such districts when you are blasting away at the entire system. As you have pointed out numerous times it is a requirement of the narrative that some aspects are discussed all the time and others are never mentioned.