VERY POOR CHILDREN: An assignment for Nicholas Kristof!


Part 4—It’s time for the royals to act: Are black kids doing better in school?

How about Hispanic kids? Low-income students? Very poor children in very poor neighborhoods? How about students whose families are at the tenth percentile in income?

Are those kids doing better in school? If we lived in a decent society, we would want to find out.

At present, we don’t live in that kind of world. That’s why we issue today’s assignment to Nicholas Kristof, who wrote about public schools again in yesterday’s New York Times column.

First, a bit of disclosure during this Valentine’s week: We aren’t in love with the Nicholas Kristof who writes about public schools.

The Kristof who writes about third-world poverty issues seems to have a lot of knowledge. We respect him for that. Nobody’s judgments are perfect, of course. But we often get the idea that he knows what he’s talking about.

The Kristof who writes about public schools just doesn’t strike us that way. He doesn’t seem to bring personal knowledge to his work. There is no reason why he should have such knowledge, of course.

But in lieu of personal knowledge or real reporting, the Kristof who writes about public schools often seems to rely on those tired old “educational experts” with their tired old talking-points. Full disclosure: To our ear, those “educational experts” don’t always seem to know what they’re talking about either—and they often seem highly scripted. (One example: A nation which rates work like this as “expertise” is a nation that's destined to fail.)

What strikes us as wrong when Kristof does schools? Consider yesterday’s column.

The column was headlined, “The New Haven Experiment.” That wasn’t a reference to Stanley Milgram, who once conducted a famous experiment in that city about deference to authority. But Kristof’s column performs a deferential type of reform-by-the-numbers, as his work in this area frequently does.

That doesn’t mean that his views are “wrong.” It does mean that they seem scripted:

He starts by banging the teachers unions around, railing against them for five or six paragraphs. Then, he declares his own personal greatness. Incomparably, our analysts groaned when they reached the point we’ve highlighted:
KRISTOF (2/16/12): New Haven has arguably become ground zero for school reform in America because it is transforming the system with the full cooperation of the union.

One of America’s greatest challenges in the coming years will be to turn around troubled schools, especially in inner cities. It’s the civil rights issue of our age, and teachers’ unions have mostly been an exasperating obstacle.

Yet reformers like myself face a conundrum. Teachers’ unions are here to stay, and the only way to achieve systematic improvement is with their buy-in. Moreover, the United States critically needs to attract talented young people into teaching. And that’s less likely when we’re whacking teachers’ unions in ways that leave many teachers feeling insulted and demoralized.
“Reformers like myself!” In this way, the know-nothings of the educational discourse crown themselves as its royals. “Teachers’ unions are here to stay,” these giants then sadly lament.

Have the unions sometimes erred? Presumably, yes they have. Does Kristof know what he’s talking about? We see few signs of that. As he proceeds, he recites the gospel of “reformers like himself,” a gospel built around one commandment: Thou shalt hire better teachers!

Thou shalt hire better teachers! It's hard to dispute such advice. But in the modern age of reform, it’s the only “idea” the “experts” know. And this one idea lies at the heart of Kristof’s ministry:
KRISTOF: A couple of years ago, the [New Haven] school district reached a revolutionary contract with teachers. Pay and benefits would rise, but teachers would embrace reform—including sacrificing job security. With a stronger evaluation system, tenure no longer mattered and weak teachers could be pushed out.

Roughly half of a teacher’s evaluation would depend on the performance of his or her students—including on standardized tests and other measures of learning.

Teachers were protected by a transparent process, and by accountability for principals. But if outside evaluators agreed with administrators that a teacher was failing, the teacher would be out at the end of the school year.

Last year, the school district pushed out 34 teachers, about 2 percent of the total in the district. The union not only didn’t object, but acknowledged that many of them didn’t really belong in the classroom.


So far this year, administrators have warned about 50 more teachers that their jobs are in jeopardy because of weak teaching. That’s out of 1,800 teachers in the district.

Mayor John DeStefano Jr. of New Haven says that the breakthrough isn’t so much that poor teachers are being eased out, but that feedback is making everyone perform better—principals included. “Most everybody picked up their game in the district,” he said.
Does the mayor know what he’s talking about? Like Kristof, we have no idea. But please note: Reformers like Kristof knows only one trick. He says nothing about curriculum, textbooks, teaching methods. He only knows about firing bad teachers—and he’d fire just two percent!

For what it’s worth, we would fire bad teachers too. In principle, we’d be willing to use standardized tests as part of that process, although that’s very hard to do without invalidating the testing process. But we wouldn’t assume that this is enough—and Kristof, cribbing from the cheat sheets of “experts,” seems to know nothing else.

There’s nothing here about what should occur when kids enter kindergarten years “behind” their middle-class peers. There’s nothing here about how you teach a fourth- or fifth-grader who may be reading “on second-grade level.” There’s nothing here about how you teach math to middle-school kids who may be deeply confused by that point. Kristof’s “experts” don’t seem to know about such topics. Therefore, such topics disappear.

At the end of his column, the royal is frustrated. “The New Haven model still doesn’t go as far as I would like,” he sadly says, “but it does represent enormous progress.” He even says this at the end of his piece: “If the American Federation of Teachers continues down this path, I’ll revisit my criticisms of teachers’ unions.”

Our royals are often quite generous.

When we read this great reformer declaiming about the public schools, we rarely get the sense that he knows what he’s talking about. But great men declaim anyhoo. Here at THE HOWLER, you don’t see us sounding off about third-world poverty issues; we simply don’t know about such topics. Such shortfalls rarely stop the great men who may someday stop building their columns around those infernal unions (which are “here to stay,” of course).

Does Kristof know what he’s talking about? We never get any real sense that he does. But then, he may have a solid excuse. He reads the New York Times!

What has been happening in our schools over the past twenty years? “Reformers” like Kristof give the impression that things are a big howling mess. And yet, the data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress seem to tell a substantially different story. The NAEP is persistently praised as the gold standard of educational testing—and scores by black kids are way up on the NAEP! Last August, this is the way Richard Rothstein described the matter in Slate:
ROTHSTEIN (8/29/11): The only consistent data on student achievement come from a federal sample, the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Though you would never know it from the state of public alarm about education, the numbers show that regular public school performance has skyrocketed in the last two decades to the point that, for example, black elementary school students now have better math skills than whites had only 20 years ago. (There has also been progress for middle schoolers, and in reading; and less, but not insubstantial, progress for high schoolers.) The reason test score gaps have barely narrowed is that white students have also improved, at least at the elementary and middle school levels. The causes of these truly spectacular gains are unknown, but they are probably inconsistent with the idea that typical inner-city teachers are content to watch students wrestle on the classroom floor instead of learning.
“Black elementary school students now have better math skills than whites had only 20 years ago?” If true, that is an astonishing fact—and that’s what the NAEP data seem to show. (Black fourth-graders are now scoring higher in math than white fourth-graders did.) But Rothstein’s remarkable observation has gone unrepeated by our reformers. Very few people have ever been told. The public is unaware of such facts.

“Black elementary school students now have better math skills than whites had only 20 years ago?” New York Times readers have never been given a whiff of that remarkable fact. If you subscribe to the New York Times, you read that the NAEP is the gold standard. But you never learn what the NAEP data show!

Nicholas Kristof could change all that! To do so, he’d have to walk away from his experts—which could be a liberation. Our educational experts rarely seem to have any idea what is happening in our schools. They’re constantly taken by surprise—by the way the state of New York had to throw out a decade’s worth of test scores last year, to cite one gong-show example. But this would be our assignment for Kristof, should he choose to accept it:
Editor’s assignment for Kristof:

Get off our goddamned ass for once and write about the real world in this country. Stop preening about your hatred of unions and explain those rising test scores. NAEP officials will answer your calls. Call them up. Start talking.

Is something “wrong” with those data from the NAEP? Have black kids (and Hispanic kids, and low-income kids) really made the degree of progress that the data seem to suggest? If so, what might explain this progress?

As Brother Gaye might have put it: Kristof! What’s goin’ on?
To accept this assignment, Kristof would have to throw away his membership in the guild of the scripted royals. He’ll have to renounce his Harvard degree, the Rhodes Scholarship he then schmoozed his way into, even his Pulitzer Prize. He’ll have to break with the world of the lords—the lords who won’t stop with the insufficient shit he marbled through yesterday’s column.

Kristol likes telling the truth about the Sudan, which is just as it should be. Here’s his assignment if he’ll accept it:

In the case of America’s very poor kids, will he deign to examine the truth about them? Are very poor children in very poor neighborhoods actually doing better in school? If so, why has that occurred? (We don't prejudge any answers.)

NAEP officials will answer his calls. Will Brother Kristof call them?

When reformers reason: Reformers like himself seem to know in advance that their genius ideas are correct. Incomparably, the analysts howled when Kristof offered the highlighted thought:
KRISTOF: Mayor John DeStefano Jr. of New Haven says that the breakthrough isn’t so much that poor teachers are being eased out, but that feedback is making everyone perform better—principals included. “Most everybody picked up their game in the district,” he said.

It’ll take years to verify that students themselves are benefiting, but it’s striking that teachers and administrators alike seem happy with the new system.
Shouldn’t Kristof have put it like this: “It’ll take years to find out if students are benefiting?” Sorry! Our royals give us the world in advance.

They’ve absorbed great ideas from the experts—from the folk who were caught by surprise, as they constantly are, when the state of New York melted down.


  1. A very important message is being presented by Kristof and his fellow royals here: private schools are much better than public schools. Imagine what would happen if our culture started to believe that public school students and graduates were to be given respect at or near the level of their private school couterparts.

    There are many tribes in our culture, and one of the most powerful is the "what school did you go to?" tribe. Our class structure is dependent upon the universal belief that private schools create better people.

    1. Babby Krents: that's where Kristof's gang's real thoughts and concerns lie.

      Public school children who don't go to the elite selective high schools? They could care less....

  2. Reading Kristof, which I never do unless told to for some rotten reason, is like rolling around in mud. This is a person who needs to be horrid to write on any issue. Yuck.

  3. Kristof is like the NYTimes having the National Enquirer on call or worse. There is no dignity to any person Kristof comes near in writing.

  4. Mr. Kristof, are you gutless or not? I'm guessing you are. You will pretend you never heard of this challenge. You have a chance to do something really worthwhile here by shaking up the conventional wisdom that is simply false. Since it inevitably will become obvious that you have known it is false for a long time -- and inevitably it will demonstrate that the power structure at the NYT, protecting its relationship with Bloomberg, has hidden its knowledge that it is false for a long time -- I consider the chance of your having the courage to do the right thing here at about 2%.