Who is failing our low-income children?

TUESDAY, JULY 10, 2012

David Brooks leaves out one group: Intellectually, our culture is broken.

In this morning’s New York Times, David Brooks discusses the problems confronting low-income kids as income inequality grows. You’d think that would be a good thing.

That said, we were struck by several parts of this passage:
BROOKS (7/10/12): It’s not only that richer kids have become more active. Poorer kids have become more pessimistic and detached. Social trust has fallen among all income groups, but, between 1975 and 1995, it plummeted among the poorest third of young Americans and has remained low ever since. As Putnam writes in notes prepared for the Aspen Ideas Festival: “It’s perfectly understandable that kids from working-class backgrounds have become cynical and even paranoid, for virtually all our major social institutions have failed them—family, friends, church, school and community.” As a result, poorer kids are less likely to participate in voluntary service work that might give them a sense of purpose and responsibility. Their test scores are lagging. Their opportunities are more limited.
“Putnam” is Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam, whose work we wouldn’t rush to trust absent verification. Even worse, Brooks is discussing a presentation Putnam will give at the Aspen Ideas Festival.

It doesn’t get more bougie (or elitist) than that. And yes, that is what they call it! These people deal in ideas!

You can read the full column yourselves. We were struck by that list of the groups which have allegedly let children down—and by that puzzling claim about declining test scores.

Is it true? Are the test scores of poorer kids lagging? The claim fits with ubiquitous claims which have largely been driven by the right.

The claim may even be true, in some limited sense which Brooks didn’t try to define.

But everyone praises the National Assessment of Educational Progress as the gold standard of educational testing. And on the NAEP, test scores of lower-income kids have very much been on the rise.

Consider eighth grade math. (The NAEP tests reading and math in grades 4 and 8.) From 2000 to 2011, the average score of lower-income kids rose by 16 points, from 253 to 269.

To toss in one large state completely at random, the average score of lower-income eighth-graders in Texas rose by 21 points during that period, from 260 to 281. For a very rough rule of thumb, ten points on the NAEP scale is often said to equal one academic year.

(To access the NAEP Data Explorer, click here. Then, click on MAIN NDE. At that point, you're on your own.)

By lower-income, we mean kids who qualify for the National School Lunch Program for free or reduced-price lunch. That’s the principal measure of income available through the NAEP.

It may be that some other slice of the low-income student population has seen its test scores lag. But Brooks presents his gloomy claim about lagging scores as if it makes perfect sense. As far as we know, it doesn’t.

We agree with Brooks on one key point. Many groups have failed to consider or serve the interests of low-income children. Frankly, some major elites don’t seem to care about such kids all that much.

We'd include major liberal elites. (On Rachel's show, black kids don't exist until they get pregnant. They're noble after that.)

Some groups have failed to serve the interests of low-income kids. In typical fashion, Brooks starts by naming their families and friends.

We would start by naming our journalists, who rarely report the rising test scores of our low-income kids. They have a much better Standard Group Tale, a story they very much like.

Coming next week: Gail Collins messes (up) Texas

They never seem to mention their own: David Brooks named several groups which have allegedly failed low-income kids.

Granted, he’s working from Putnam’s outline. But it doesn’t seem to occur to Brooks to mention the group to which he himself belongs—to mention the ways the mainstream press corps has walked away from the interests of low-income kids.

As we have studied Chris Hayes’ new book, we’ve been struck by a similar pattern. Has anyone ever worked so hard to disappear the epic fail of the thoroughly broken elite to which he himself belongs?

At this point, we're just asking. But good grief! The mainstream press has a very low profile within this elite-bashing book.


  1. Putnam, one of the most revered and accomplished academics and researchers in the world, vs Somerby, a blogger and comedian. Hmmm. Who has more credibility? Who has done the hard work? Whose judgment do you trust?

    Real, real close call, isn't it?

    1. Do you also think that the measure of a man is gauged by how much money he earns?

    2. Blogger, comedian, AND former educator.

    3. Sourced, reasoned arguments?

      Or naked appeal to authority?

      Which is of more value to one's own attempts at analysis?

      Real, real close call, isn't it?

    4. I take seriously peer-reviewed and documented work and rigorous analysis, not random, highly subjective, often prejudicial remarks typed by someone with no known qualifications or expertise on a subject. Here's what we know about Bob: He watches a lot of msnbc, reads a lot of Gail Collins, read a book by someone named Gene Lyons, and has been a comedian and a school teacher.

      Bob has "analyzed" Putnam's work in the past, bringing his considerable academic rigor and analysis to one of the towering figures in the academy.

    5. Double down on that appeal to Authority! Everyone knows that "towering figures" should not be criticized by (shudder) ordinary people!

    6. There's no populism like faux populism. Fight the power, Anonymous! Oh, and next time you need to see a doctor, be sure to pick an ordinary one. And if you have kids, be sure their teachers aren't towering figures at all, but mediocre and unlettered.

    7. Anonymous above was correct. Your literal position has been that "towering figures" like Putnam are immune to criticism from the likes of Somerby.

      Your basis for that position amounts to exactly what you claim is problematic -- "no known qualifications or expertise on a subject."

      To wit: Somerby is in fact known to have a long history in "the subject" (which is Media Analysis, not that you care) -- while you are unknown to anyone and apparently lack any credentials to criticise Somerby!

      Of course, that's your own standard that you're failing to meet, not mine. But you fail there too.

      I only ask that you have something to contribute. But you are just a foot-stomping child. You can continue in that vein, but you'll probably be ignored.

  2. As far as I am aware Somerby actually did do a lot of "hard work" -- in education specifically.

    As far as the "judgment" -- that the media never examines its own failures, that it names only *other* elites that have failed -- as far as that judgment goes, it's not a matter of my trusting Somerby. The facts are evident.

    In this instance, Putnam doesn't so much contradict Somerby as provide yet another example of the phenomenon.

    But you're just a poor "Confused" reflex Somerby-basher, so I don't expect you to have given this much real thought.

  3. Brooks's column accurately describes my grandchildren. Their two hard-working parents are providing them with theatre, little league, scouting, swimming lessons, religous services, etc.

    OTOH I wonder how important that all is. A Times reader points out that President Obama hardly knew his father and President Clinton grew up poor with an abusive stepfather. So, these extra-curricular activities may not be the key to success in life.

    1. Having a father is not an extracurricular activity. A father is a role model and guide, mentor and caretaker. An extracurricular activity widens experience by providing a scaffolding for acquisition of concepts and vocabulary. Children with a wide variety of such experiences benefit more from reading and classroom teaching because they understand what is being talked about because they can relate it to their own life experiences outside of class. The more limited a child's experiences, the more difficult it is for them to learn from what is offered in the classroom. So, theatre, scouting, lessons, etc. work in synergy with school to provide a richer exposure to life. If kids are trapped in low income neighborhoods and homes with little enrichment, there is a bigger disjunction between what happens in school and what happens outside it.

      Both a father-figure (e.g., nurturing caretakers) and out of school life experiences are beneficial in different ways.

    2. Which is why I strongly object to the theory that says the reason our schools are "lousy" is because we don't work kids hard enough. So we stack homework on them to the point they have no life outside of school and homework.

      I also made sure my kids had a wide variety of "extracurricular" activities, including Scouts, dance, theater, music, sports, whatever they would try, while carefully allowing them to drop in short order what wasn't really appealing to them.

      My son is grateful for it. He gets his PhD in classical music performance next year.

  4. Only bougie writer Alex Pareene speaks ill of the journalistic elite with his annual Hack List at salon.com. But I guess it's all in fun. No hard feelings.

    I've heard rattlesnakes and cobras never bite each other, but settle disputes by wrestling. All manner of deer butt heads but never gore one another. It seems the higher (more elite) the species the more reluctant to do fatal damage to their fellows.

    Professional courtesy.

    1. When do rattlesnakes and cobras get the opportunity to wrestle, given that they live on entirely different continents?

  5. I often wonder how Brooks comes up with his topics. Maybe a dart board? Beyond being a writer he's not an expert in any field, either by education or experience. There's nothing necessarily wrong with his non-expertise. But over the past few months he's written about why Henry V would fail in today's schools (05.June); computer modeling and sustained learning (26.April); structuralist versus cyclicalist approaches to the economy (07.May); and what Republicans should do about health care (02.July).

    While most of the these topics are of interest to American citizens, Brooks contributes little to the discussion. Attentive reading of any column, as Bob points out, leaves one baffled at best. Consider the opening of my favorite recent column, Honor Code:

    "Henry V is one of Shakespeare’s most appealing characters. He was rambunctious when young and courageous when older. But suppose Henry went to an American school."

    Oh please. How about writing about Kate (Shrew) and women's education? Shylock and financial regulation? What if Romeo worked for Apple and Juliet for Google?

    Non-experts can write well about technical and obscure subjects; K.C. Cole on science comes to mind first. John McPhee is another. To be sure this is a bit of an apples to rutabagas comparison because both aforementioned writers tend to use longer formats for writing. Get someone from the 'Wall Street Journal' over if you want a conservative pov. Brooks contributes nothing.

    1. As Saturday Night Live once pondered, "What if Spartacus had a Piper Cub?"

  6. mainstream journalists very rarely critique one another because theyre not autonomous. when they criticize another media entities employee they are at the same time criticizing that employees bosses because those bosses have the ability to tell their employees what to talk about and not talk about and fire them if they dont go along.

    a better framing of the question would be why dont the mainstream media bosses go after one another more (via their employed journalists)? the other media companies are their competition so theres motive. whats stops them?

  7. The "journalistic elite" is an irrelevant sideshow. The problems cited by Brooks in this column have very clear, predictable --- and predicted --- causes: The gutting of the US economy through offshoring and the financialization of the economy; the gutting of support for the poor, not least by "progressives" such as Clinton and Gore; the complete lack of interest in and will to create any kind of social democracy or redistribution of wealth.

    How are you supposed to spend time with and read to your kids when you're forced by economic circumstances to hold down three jobs with very little childcare or support? And thanks to our "trade" "agreements", the jobs here are paying less and less, so people have to work more jobs and still not have enough money.

    The "journalistic elite" are circus performers who are paid to AVOID discussing the structures of our society and how power works. They are employed by Murdoch, Comcast, GE, etc. In some sense, Bob is to be applauded for pointing out their defects, but he has now devoted millions upon millions of keystrokes to a clown show, while sidestepping the real sources of the problems, which are rooted in how power operates, how propaganda is disseminated, and even the role of race in dividing social classes with common economic interests. On that last point, Bob seems to deny to existence of racism, and manipulation of race, entirely.

    Where we are, and where we're going, has been predicted for decades, not least by visionaries within the professoriate, a class that Bob indiscriminately derides.

    1. I think he discriminately derides the professoriate.

    2. chomskyzinn,

      The increased workload on Americans has much more influence on volunteer community work than Brooks' perceptions of failing social institutions.

      People don't have the time or the energy or the meager finances to devote to community action.

      20 years ago, we had evenings and weekends off. Many businesses were only open 8 hours a day, five days a week.

      Now, major retail outlets are open 10, 15, 17 hours a day, seven days a week, 360 days a year. That leaves a very tiny window for one to offer free labor to assist one's neighbors, even if the will and desire is there.

    3. "On that last point, Bob seems to deny to existence of racism, and manipulation of race, entirely."

      As Forrest Gump might say, "Racist is as racist does."

  8. Okay, Bob, I haven't read the Hayes book, but I just visited the Amazon webpage, used their look inside the book feature and examined the index. There are apparently pages given to the runup to the Iraq War--that's a topic in the index, as is the name "Judith Miller". David Brooks also appears in the index.

    I don't know what Hayes says, but it seems rather likely that he did in fact discuss the horrific job the press did on the most important issue in our recent history, the Iraq War.

    I agree with you more than I disagree, but I'm not feeling a whole lot of trust in what you have to say about this book.


    1. I just looked at a few of the passages on the Iraq War in the book. He condemns the pundits who sold us the Iraq War, among other things. Yeah, sure, there's nothing about the media elites in the book. Whatever you say. On this issue you're full of it, Bob.


    2. And for anyone interested, here is the link to the Amazon page--


      You can search the index for yourself, or type in the word "Iraq" and search for passages.

    3. Anonymous at July 10, 2012 7:36 PM says:

      >>>>>David Brooks also appears in the index. I don't know what Hayes says, but...

      It is true that Judy Miller does get smacked down pretty good in Twilight of the Elites but why don't we look at pretty much the sum total of what Chris Hayes says about Brooks as one example of how this MSNBC attack dog goes after a named and still reigning member of the MSM:

      [page 18] On the other side [from the insurrectionists like Naomi Klein] are the institutionalists, who see the erosion of authority and declining public trust as a terrifying trend. Like Edmund Burke, the institutionalists look aghast as pillar institutions are attacked as decadent and dissolute by the uninformed rabble....

      The New York Times columnist David Brooks is institutionalism's most accessible advocate (the Times op-ed contains multitudes) and in 2009 he laid out its vision. citing the political scientist Hugh Heclo, who wrote the book On Thinking Institutionally, Brooks writes that "the institutionalist has a deep reverence for those who came before and built up the rules that he has tempo-

      [page 19] rarily taken delivery of...Lack of institutional awareness has bred cynicism and undermined habits of behavior."...

      But even the most ardent institutionalists have to admit that things aren't working. "my own trust in our political leaders is at a

      [p. 20] personal low," David Brooks wrote on the Times' website in 2010. "And I actually know and like these people. I just think they are trapped in a system that buries their good qualities and brings out the bad."...

      [page 23] Whatever my own [Hayes'] insurrectionist sympathies--and they are considerable--I am also stalked by the fear that the status quo, in which discredited elites and institutions retain their power, can just as easily produce destructive and antisocial impulses as it can spur transformation and reform. Call it my inner David Brooks. When people come to view all formal authority as fraudulent, good governance becomes impossible, and a vicious cycle of official misconduct and low expectations kicks in....

  9. Bob writes novels. You people don't know that by now?

  10. The Media Elite IS Haye's elite.

    In spite of that (or, more cynically, because of that) they come in for very little systematic criticism in his account of elite failure.

    This doesn't mean his book lacks all merit.

    It does show he is not without a certain, self-serving, blind spot.

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