PART 1—ARE WE SMARTER THAN THIRD GRADERS: A funny thing happened last week as we liberals thundered and roared about Newt Gingrich’s famous Dickensian comments.
Newt had made outrageous remarks about “really poor children in really poor neighborhoods.” But as we hammered Newt for his comments, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (the NAEP) released its new TUDA scores.
What the Sam Hill is the TUDA? It’s the NAEP’s “Trial Urban District Assessment,” a program which records the work of 21 urban school systems. Participating systems include New York, Los Angeles, Houston, Chicago—and DC, Baltimore, Cleveland, Detroit.
Many of our “really poor children in really poor neighborhoods” attend public schools in these large school systems. If you’re a really poor child in a really poor neighborhood, you may be part of this study.
At Slate, Matt Yglesias discussed these new TUDA data, to his substantial credit. But if the spirit was willing, the flesh was not. This was his full post:
YGLESIAS (12/7/11): Today the latest round of Trial Urban District Assessment data about American school performance came out. On the reading front it showed no statistically significant change over the past two years in forth [sic] graders in any of the participating cities, and statistically significant (and positive) change for eighth graders in Charlotte while everyone else was insignificant. When you combine all the cities into a large sample, it shows a modest overall statistically significant improvement. In math we [sic] fourth graders improving in Atlanta, Austin, Baltimore, and Philadelphia and eighth graders improving in Atlanta, Charlotte, Chicago, Detroit, DC, and Louisville. There are no statistically significant declines anywhere.Let’s restate our initial point. In a world where liberals pay little attention to low-income schools, Yglesias (and Slate) get credit for discussing these new TUDA data. On the other hand, that post was quite underwhelming.
I don't think you can draw any sweeping conclusions from this, but I do think it's worth laying it out there as a baseline. Most of the commentary I read about public education in America is very negative but to the best we can tell things are gradually improving even during a very difficult social and economic period for the country. The math gains in Atlanta seem especially noteworthy since a lot of attention has been paid to a big cheating scandal on the Georgia state tests. It looks, however, like that cheating was occurring against a background of real learning gains for the city's kids.
The thing I do worry about, however, is that lots of cities don't participate in TUDA!. [sic] Policy varies greatly across the participating cities, but one thing they have in common is that they all want to know how they're doing, which I think is the baseline beginning for improvement. But some very large school districts—most notably Clark County in Nevada, a bunch of non-Miami Florida districts, and Dallas, TX—seem to prefer to wallow in ignorance. There's really no excuse for this.
Yglesias has been hired by Slate to write about “Business and Economics.” He may be highly knowledgeable in many relevant areas. (We’re sure he knows more than we do about quite a few such topics.) But when it comes to urban schools, we’d have to say he shows little facility, background or skill. There was little a reader could learn from his post. And he missed some truly striking stories in the data to which he linked.
Yglesias’ post was quite unimpressive. So was his post from a few days before, in which he discussed the latest NAEP scores from the DC system. (Title: “Is School Choice Failing DC?”) But then, consider what happened last Friday when David Sirota wrote about public schools at Salon. Sirota started his column with two underwhelming assertions:
SIROTA (12/9/11): As 2011 draws to a close, we can confidently declare that one of the biggest debates over education is—mercifully—resolved. We may not have addressed all the huge challenges facing our schools, but we finally have empirical data ruling out apocryphal theories and exposing the fundamental problems.Have we learned that "our entire education system is not in crisis?” Sirota sets a very low bar with this first pronouncement. In the process, he says that an international test (the PISA) has shown that “American students in low-poverty schools are among the highest achieving students in the world,” but this is a very vague claim. What percentage of American students are we discussing? Where exactly do they fall among those highest achieving students? We’ve seen similar claims in the past, but we don’t recall where those American students fall in that spectrum—and Sirota didn’t attempt to say, or provide a link. For what it’s worth, Sirota says nothing about achievement or achievement gains in our low-income schools.
We’ve learned, for instance, that our entire education system is not “in crisis,” as so many executives in the for-profit education industry insist when pushing to privatize public schools. On the contrary, results from Program for International Student Assessment exams show that American students in low-poverty schools are among the highest achieving students in the world.
We’ve also learned that no matter how much self-styled education "reformers" claim otherwise, the always-demonized teachers unions are not holding our education system back. As the New York Times recently noted: “If unions are the primary cause of bad schools, why isn’t labor’s pernicious effect” felt in the very unionized schools that so consistently graduate top students?
Second, have we learned that “the always-demonized teachers unions are not holding our education system back?” Sirota says he’s quoting “the New York Times;” in fact, he quoting a book review in which Sara Mosle, a former Teach for America teacher, made a deeply underwhelming presentation. Alas! When we liberals do discuss low-income schools, we are often willing to settle for this kind of piffle:
MOSLE (8/18/11): Also, if unions are the primary cause of bad schools, why isn’t labor’s pernicious effect similarly felt in many middle-class suburbs, like Pelham, N.Y., or Montclair, N.J., which have good schools—and strong unions?To state the obvious, teachers unions are not “the primary cause of bad schools”—it isn’t clear that teachers unions are any kind of a problem at all. But Mosle’s presentation is highly underwhelming. In fact, Pelham and Montclair are upper-end suburbs, with average family incomes in the $120,000 range. No one is surprised when children do well in towns like these. A presentation like Mosle’s is easy to bat to the curb.
Is this really the best we liberals can do in this area? To their credit, Sirota and Yglesias broke the mold; they actually discussed low-income schools, the kinds of schools which may be serving “really poor children in really poor neighborhoods.” But the work in their pieces was weak. The inevitable question:
Are we smarter than third graders when it comes to low-income schools?
Before the week is done, we will return to those TUDA data, the fascinating data with which Yglesias struggled and brought forth a mouse. If you care about really poor children in really poor neighborhoods, you ought to care about the stories found within those data. Given the noise we made last week about Newt’s very bad remarks, you’d think we liberals would have spent the week poring over these data, drawing significant lessons from the stories they tell.
But Matt Yglesias has a problem, as other liberals do. He has come of age within a liberal culture which doesn’t care about really poor children. Among the writers with whom he cocoons, he has few role models who do any work in this area. He has seen few writers discuss NAEP scores. In his recent post for Slate, he floundered ahead with a type of data he doesn’t know how to discuss.
Sad but true: When it comes to the interests of low-income children, Yglesias lives in a "really poor neighborhood" too! When he looks around, he sees few people who are working in the interests of these children. It shouldn’t be surprising if he doesn’t know what to do with data like these—if he writes the underwhelming posts to which we have linked.
Yglesias may be quite sharp about many topics. But can we talk? Liberals thundered and roared last week about a topic we don’t care about! To our ear, Yglesias' post did sound like a third-grader’s work. But then, after decades of undisguised disinterest, this seems like the best we liberals can do—except when we parade about the land using really poor children as beards, as vehicles for praising ourselves for our own racial greatness.
We liberals thundered at Newt last week—and we ignored the latest NAEP scores! All week long, we’ll discuss these interwoven realms, comparing the size of our self-serving noise with the fruits of our giant disinterest.
Tomorrow: Who cares about basic facts?