NAEP VERSUS NEWT: Reigns of error!


PART 2—WHEN LIBERALS WRITE ABOUT SCHOOLS: When liberals write about public schools, bad things tend to happen.

Consider the terrible, horrible piece in yesterday’s New York Times. We read the piece in stupefaction as we rolled southbound on Amtrak.

A Duke professor and a former Times editor conspired in the long, rolling mess. For one small taste of their tolerance for illogic and error, consider this puzzling morsel:
LADD AND FISKE (12/12/11): Since they can’t take on poverty itself, education policy makers should try to provide poor students with the social support and experiences that middle-class students enjoy as a matter of course.


Other countries already pursue such strategies. In Finland, with its famously high-performing schools, schools provide food and free health care for students. Developmental needs are addressed early. Counseling services are abundant.

But in the United States over the past decade, it became fashionable among supporters of the “no excuses” approach to school improvement to accuse anyone raising the poverty issue of letting schools off the hook—or what Mr. Bush famously called “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”
Rapping the loathed No Child Left Behind, the writers praised those marvelous schools in Finland, which “provide food for students.” But good lord! In the same day’s New York Times, Michael Winerip noted a rather well-known fact: 46 percent of American students receive free or reduced-price lunch! Free or reduced-price breakfast is also served at wide swaths of American schools. (For one small suburban example, click here.) Indeed: Last year in Chicago, a flap blew up about all the instructional time being lost as the schools fed breakfast to students!

The foolishness was much more extensive in yesterday’s blowhard column. (We felt sorry for the parents who pay the tuition at Duke.) But Ladd and Fiske extended one key trope—a standard script which virtually defines modern writing about public schools.

This standard script comes in two lazy pieces:

First, Ladd and Fiske cited data from the so-called gold standard of American education testing. “Data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress show that more than 40 percent of the variation in average reading scores and 46 percent of the variation in average math scores across states is associated with variation in child poverty rates,” the writers thoughtfully wrote. Given the phrase “across states,” we'll guess that passage means something like this: Students in Massachusetts score better in math than students in Mississippi—and 46 percent of the difference “is associated with” the larger amount of poverty in the Magnolia State.

Whatever! As all such experts always do, the writers cited the National Assessment of Educational Progress—the NAEP—as the place to go for educational data. And then, without even batting an eye, they filled their horrible, no-good piece with silly-shit zingers like this:
LADD AND FISKE: But in the United States over the past decade, it became fashionable among supporters of the “no excuses” approach to school improvement to accuse anyone raising the poverty issue of letting schools off the hook—or what Mr. Bush famously called “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”

Such accusations may afford the illusion of a moral high ground, but they stand in the way of serious efforts to improve education and, for that matter, go a long way toward explaining why No Child Left Behind has not worked.
Has No Child Left Behind “worked” in some way? We have no idea; such things are very hard to measure, and no one much seems to be trying. But after citing the NAEP when it served their ends, the propagandists failed to tell us that NAEP scores by low-income children have risen substantially during the term of that much-maligned program. It may be that Ladd and Fiske are so clueless that they themselves don’t know this fact, a fact we’ll explore at the end of the week. (Did we mention the pity we feel for those misused Duke parents?) But then, Matt Yglesias didn’t observe this pattern in the new NAEP data to which he last week! (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/12/11.) Those new data include new break-outs for children who receive free lunch—and separately, for those who receive reduced-price lunch. Yglesias wasted his time on relatively petty concerns, failing to mention those new data—data which show our low-income students making substantial gains!

It is now the reliable norm when pseudo-liberals write about public schools. Data from the NAEP will be cited—but only when it lets us promote the gloomy tales we prefer, gloomy tales in which Bush has failed and nothing is right with the schools. On balance, of course, this promotes many corporatist tales: Those “government schools” can’t do anything right! Those lazy teachers should all be fired! They should all be replaced with those great Princeton kids! Why isn't Michelle Rhee in charge? But so what? For whatever reason, we the people never get told about the substantial rise in those NAEP scores. We never hear about the rise in test scores by black kids; the rise in test scores by Hispanic kids; the rise in test scores by kids who get free and/or reduced-price lunch.

Pseudo-liberals like Ladd and Fiske provide the low-IQ thunder and the New York Times gobbles it up. In the process, the country gets disinformed!

Ain’t idiocracy grand?

That’s what happens when pseudo-liberals write about public schools. This of course includes the schools which serve “really poor children in really poor neighborhoods.” But then, we liberals churned a similar bit of idiocracy concerning Newt Gingrich’s recent statements about those children—about the really poor children we liberals so widely ignore.

For the most part, we liberals said nothing at all when those new NAEP data emerged last week—new NAEP data concerning our nation’s urban schools. But lord god of hosts, how we thundered and roared when Gingrich dared to make remarks about some of the children attending such schools! For the most part, Newt’s remarks were really quite standard; tomorrow, we’ll show you some of the honored figures who have said similar things about “really poor children in really poor neighborhoods.”

Is Professor Gates a racist? Prepare to defnd your remarks.

For now, let’s focus on the silly-bill blather we in the liberal world churned about Newt, even as we ignored the NAEP, which we seem to find boring. Crackers! If there’s one thing we liberals know how to do, we know how to sing pleasing songs! Ladd and Fiske sang that No Child has failed—even as they ignored the way those NAEP test scores have soared. Similarly, everyone knew what to say about Newt! One description of his remarks was especially pleasing:

Trip Gabriel, New York Times, November 19: Mr. Gingrich, who back in 1994 proposed bringing back orphanages for children on welfare, was quickly labeled "Dickensian" by people commenting on Twitter.

Joan Walsh, The Ed Show, November 21: With Christmas coming, this guy is so Dickensian. He roots for Scrooge. He`s not going to wear well on the rest of the country.

Katrina vanden Heuvel, Twitter, November 23: Anyone seen Gingrich's Dickensian/cruel education idea: Fire school janitors & have kids do the work. Guess he wants return 2 child labor

John Nicholls, The Nation, December 2: Newt Gingrich is possessed of a Dickensian name, so perhaps it should come as no surprise that he seeks the presidency on a platform that seems to have been written by the unreformed Ebenezer Scrooge.

Charles Blow, New York Times, December 3: [Gingrich] comes across as a callous Dickensian character in his attitude toward America's most vulnerable—our poor children.

Maureen Dowd, New York Times, December 4: [Gingrich] expanded on Dickensian remarks he'd made recently at Harvard...

Michael Eric Dyson, The Ed Show, December 7: As president, Newt Gingrich says he’d lift those pesky child labor laws. Hey, let’s return to the time when Dickens was at his height!

Jim Hightower, syndicated column, December 9: The Newt recently called America's child labor laws "truly stupid," adding with Dickensian glee that he would fire school janitors and have low-income 9-year-olds do that work.

Gene Robinson, Washington Post, December 9: Do you imagine [Trump] wil read Gingrich his Dickensian quotes about child labor laws and ask him to explain which jobs are suitable for urchins and which are not?

Jimi Izrael, NPR, December 9: [Gingrich] has kind of gotten a lot of heat for his kind of Dickensian ideas about putting kids to work.

Clarence Page, syndicated column, December 11: The hit against child labor laws is novel even for Naughty Newt, although not his first display of a fascination with the child and family politics of the Charles Dickens era.

Jesse Jackson, Chicago Sun-Times, December 13: When critics said he would send America back to the age depicted by Dickens, Gingrich defended himself by sustaining the slander of the poor.

We liberals and pseudos are seldom at a loss for well-scripted words! Meanwhile, riddle us this:

Which of those people has ever told the public about those rising NAEP scores? Has Professor Dyson, for all his greatness, ever stooped to such a task? For all his thunder, do you think he knows? How about well-scripted Joan? Indeed, has any one of those fiery figures cared enough about “really poor children” to examine those gold standard data—the data our educational experts swear by, as long as the data can be used to tell us a gloomy tale?

Can we talk for a moment? We liberals are horrible people. We’re programmed within an inch of our lives. We have a tremendous tolerance for error, as long as the errors in question advance our tribe’s favored tales. Examples:

In response to Gingrich’s recent comments, we claimed he said that 9-year-olds could work as janitors. It felt very good when we made this claim. In truth, he didn’t say it.

Rachel said that Newt would take poor children out of class to do this work. Truth to tell, he didn’t say that either. (After that, the willful child turned to her feces and urine.)

Dyson and Schultz said that Newt would make these children work for free. Quite explicitly, Gingrich had said the opposite.

Does our side ever tell the truth? Even when we pretend to talk about the interests of really poor children? In fact, nothing stops the reigns of error our liberal leaders trail through the land. But then, these are horrible, terrible people. They don’t give a fig about really poor children. Few things could be more clear.

Last week, we liberals roared about Newt—and ignored the NAEP. In the process, we showed few signs of caring about really poor children. Tomorrow, we’ll show you a long list of honored figures who have said things remarkably similar to the things the awful Dickensian said.

Is Professor Gates a racist? Prepare to defend your remarks.

Tomorrow: What Professor Gates said

Coming Friday: What do these new NAEP scores show?


  1. Unclear to this reader why, exactly, Newt Gingrich and the NAEP are conjoined here, but let's clarify a certain matter, if we can: is Mr. Somerby asserting that sloganeering (or, for that matter, Gingrich-style rhetoric) doesn't work in the U.S.?

    If so, to what exactly does he attribute the rise of Republicans, despite the fact that Republicans promote ideas which are demonstrably disastrous for most voters?

    Or is he asserting that these strategies do indeed work, but only Republicans are allowed to use them, because we Democrats would rather lose than manipulate the public?

    One could point here to the occasional eloquence of Obama, as a measure of how "liberals" should talk, but since nothing Obama says can be believed,and few real progressives actually do believe him any longer, Mr. O offers little in the way of instruction(?)

  2. Mr. Sombery says explicitly why the issues are joined...

    liberals have had YEARS to formulate a truthful rebuttal to conservative disinformation regarding schools and regarding the children who attend those schools.

    When Gingrich opens his mouth, the ONLY response liberals can come up with is half-assed, less than truthful, and essentially worthless SCRIPT that does nothing to

    1.) counteract conservative disinformation


    2.) further advance liberal understanding of the issues

    When "liberals" speak (liberals as represented by the media AND blogosphere) they actually tend to DO MORE HARM THAN GOOD.

    If you want snark, we've got it in spades.

    If you want factual messaging which might help voters understand how they're being misled...NOT SO MUCH!!!

  3. Well, scores appear to be going up for many segments of the population but I do see some liberals focus on the "achievement gap" as an indicator of inequality.

    Here's a good discussion of the achievement gap:

    I think there is enough evidence though that poverty and other social conditions (like imprisoning black men as a policy) create inequality in test scores. The premise that fixing inequality in schools should start with fixing inequality outside of schools is sound.

    As I noted the other day, we may be getting kids food in schools, but we are terrible at parental leave after a child is born, we're terrible about providing day care or pre school or after school care. We're terrible at providing consistent health care. Parents have to work harder to earn a living and have less time for kids. We imprison more parents than ever before an punish the families. These are the reasons for inequality in schools and testing more and doing right-wing "reform" simply misdirects our attention from the problem. Firing a certain number of teachers and privatizing schools will only make things worse.

  4. The ideal situation would be this: liberals would look at the facts concerning the NAEP and then construct persuasive narratives, employ all the psychocognitive effects that narrative, rhetoric, figuration, imagery, etc. offer, to convince people of the truth of what's going on, as opposed to

    1) reacting after the GOP has already shaped the narrative; or

    2) reciting random, angry sh*t that is tribally pleasing but does zilch to counter the GOP narrative.

    It's not that hard.

    One reason the Occupy Movement has had an effect is because some sharp members of that movement have taken some basic, quantifiable facts about income and wealth disparities between the top 1% and the bottom 99% rest of us, and put them into a narrative that millions of people are beginning to understand.

    The right does this all the time. Liberals need to learn how to do it. Starting with the success, over the last FORTY YEARS, of black and latino children in public schools could be a game-changer. But the reality is that many high-end liberals really do identify with the rich because they are rich, and couldn't give a damn about public schools or children of color or anything else that doesn't involve upper middle class concerns and people and institutions, like the Ivy League.

    The New York Times, like the "mainstream" network news, like far too many of the "intellectual" journals, etc., is ground zero for this kind of mentality.

    As a result, the country--and as we're seeing, because of the grotesque screw-ups of the American right, and the right all over the world--the globe suffer terribly.

  5. You folks are ignoring the fact that so-called "low information voters" -- persons who can't identify either the claimed or actual policies of either party, or the candidate they just voted for -- decide American elections.

    You can dream of an enlightened discourse all you want, but if you can't find a way to compete with Republican lies, you're sunk. One might also point out that Democrats who decline to offer a real alternative to Republican policies (or who, like Obama, appear to want to enact Republican policies under the guise of "compromise") don't give the propagandists much to work with.

  6. When I read about free school meals in Finland in yesterday's NYT piece, the first question that popped into my mind was "What kind of food is served?" I am an elementary school teacher at a Title I school, and I keep canned chicken on hand as an emergency lunch in case I forget or don't have time to pack one. I will not eat the standard highly processed reheated junk with 2 dozen ingredients that look like a list of key terms in a introductory biochemistry course. We teacher have noticed that on some days our kids are all wired-up, every class, every grade. We figure the cause must be environmental and surmise that either the cafeteria food or the weather is to blame. Ever read the blog "Fed Up with the School Lunch>"

    Don't get me wrong; adequate calories and nutrition is better than inadequate calories and nutrition. I just think we can do better for the same or less money. A sandwich and fruit offers the same nutrition as a plate of chicken nuggets and canned corn, is cheaper to prepare, and probably contains fewer flavor additives and preservatives. A lot of our kids get the daily sandwich alternative anyway unless the main choice is a kid's favorite like chicken nuggets or pizza.

    Today a colleague told me that by regulation, a school breakfast and lunch, if eaten entirely, comprise the total daily calorie needs of a child. This regulation is intended to ensure that children who do not get fed at home are not underfed. This regulation may also explain a) why so much food gets thrown away; and b) why some kids are overweight or obese. I grew up in a Midwest "clean plate club" and have been conditioned since childhood to eat everything on my plate if I could. Thankfully as a child in a working poor home, I took a lunchbox to school every day and did not begin eating hot lunches until middle school. Breakfast was a bowl of Cheerios and milk only, not pancakes drenched in colored corn syrup or breakfast pizza.

    I am seeing more and more young kids whose bellies are swelling from rapid expansion, and I feel sick inside, knowing that these kids are being set up for a lifetime of metabolic disfunction.

  7. "Is associated with"

    They are reporting on a statistical analysis. "Associated with" is a perfectly reasonable substitute for "correlated with." I thought we all knew that correlation does not mean causation. The sarcasm is misplaced, and detracts from the other valuable observations about (a) the op ed authors' failure to note (indeed, give central significance to) the incredible gains of minority students over the last 20 years and (b) their brain-dead adoption of the typical (and false) "we suck" international comparison narrative. (It's false, by the way, because of the provable impact of poverty which is higher here than in most other industrialized countries [certainly Finland, which in population and demographics probably could more accurately be compared with Minnesota], although the authors, with their standard-narrative blinders, fail to identify how that impacts the international comparison.)

  8. A Finn here. Our schools score better only because the variance is concentrated in the central area of distribution, i.e. our worst students beat the worst students in other countries. As far as I can tell that is because our disadvantaged children live, still, in much better conditions than in many industrialized nations. In addition to homogeneous culture that is because since the 50's and up the 80's the country's political priorities were eradicating poverty/increasing the standard of living by offering quality education to everybody. (Historically Finland was a poor agricultural society, much poorer than other nordic countries, albeit one with an appreciation of education). It is an incredible success story, which will not stand the current political (=hard right ideological) climate for ever. And the message,to me, is: raise the living standards of EVERYONE. Offer free, quality schools EVERYWHERE. (Give more money to schools which are in disadvantaged areas if necessary as is the case currently in Sweden). What american teachers do in poor areas (as I understand, the school financing is partially/wholly dependent on property taxes of the area) considering the historical (starting with slavery) and financial restrains is nothing short of heroic.