SOURCES OF PARALYSIS: Skill-less in Cincinnati!


Epilogue—“An analysis by the New York Times” of Queen City public schools: What does intellectual paralysis look like, in its purest form?

Put it another way: How deeply pre-human are the elites who drive our intellectual culture? How deeply pre-human are this nation’s “journalistic” elites?

Consider the lengthy news report which appears in today’s New York Times. The piece runs more than 1500 words. Its headline announces this:

“Candidates for Mayor See Cincinnati as a Model for Schools in New York”

Reports like this have appeared in the upper-end press corps for at least the last fifty years. Punishingly, they show us how primitive our nation is, the depth of our mental paralysis.

We’ll focus on three parts of the report by Javier Hernandez. (As a courtesy, we’ll assume that the groaners which litter the piece were put in place by his unnamed editor.) We’ll start with Hernandez’s current description of the new test scores announced in New York last week.

What you see below is egregious work, designed to create confusion. As a courtesy, we’ll assume this formulation came from an unnamed editor:
HERNANDEZ (8/12/3): Even before New York reported a drastic drop in reading and math scores last week on new exams aligned with tougher standards known as Common Core, the [New York City mayoral] candidates were promoting the Cincinnati model on the campaign trail.
What is “the Cincinnati model?” We’ll get to that quite quickly. But for starters, note the way Hernandez is now describing the new test scores which were released last week.

Hernandez is now saying that “a drastic drop in reading and math scores” was reported last week in New York. This drastic drop occurred “on new exams aligned with tougher standards.”

Very few readers will know what that last word jumble means. Here you see a grossly misleading statement transformed into English:
What Hernandez’ editor wrote: “New York reported a drastic drop in reading and math scores last week on new exams aligned with tougher standards.”
What that jumble means in English: Passing rates were substantially lower, just as predicted, on a new set of tests which were much more difficult.
In a rational world, journalists would try to counteract basic confusion about such matters. In this case, the Times keeps promoting confusion. This horrible newspaper keeps suggesting that some “drastic drop” in test scores occurred, although there was no drop in scores at all in any meaningful sense.

(In large part, this confusion is created by the use of mumbo-jumbo about “exams aligned with tougher standards.” No one who speaks everyday English has any idea what that five-word salad means. Many readers will come away with the impression that students performed less well this year, “drastically” so in fact. In fact, there is no way to compare this year’s student performance to that of last year.)

At a competent journalistic entity, an editor who published that language would have his ascot fired. But to understand how paralyzed your floundering culture actually is, consider the way Hernandez opened his lengthy report.

Hernandez is reporting what mayoral candidates think about New York City's schools. Beyond that, he is reporting their excitement about a new public school model.

News reports have started this way for at least the past fifty years. We are cursed with gullible elites and with a press corps which is unable to function:
HERNANDEZ: Candidates for Mayor See Cincinnati as a Model for Schools in New York

CINCINNATI—In search of a cure for ailing schools, educators and politicians from around the world have descended on this city’s poorest neighborhoods, hearing of a renaissance.

They are told stories of schools that escaped years of dysfunction by becoming “community learning centers,” replete with dental clinics, mental health therapists and mentors from local banks and churches. They hear of sparkling new libraries, over-the-moon teachers and too many volunteers to count.

Among the many visitors have been several candidates for mayor of New York City, who walked away so impressed that they have made replicating Cincinnati’s model a centerpiece of their campaigns.

“It makes so much sense,” Christine C. Quinn, the City Council speaker, said.

“Endless potential,” Bill de Blasio, the city’s public advocate, said.
Hernandez’s overall reporting today is awful. But in this opening, we read a type of report which has been appearing in major newspapers since Native Americans sold rights to Manhattan for a handful of beads, since de Leon went galloping off in search of the fountain of youth.

Here’s what happens in the latest telling of this familiar old story, at least as Hernandez tells it. We’ll simplify a bit, but not much:

Gullible half-wits named Quinn and de Blasio have been “told stories of schools that have escaped years of dysfunction.” “In search of a cure” and believing these tales, they have trouped off to Cincinnati to gaze on “sparkling new libraries.”

After seeing the various wonders, the gullibles buy the stories completely. “Endless potential,” one candidate says.

Over the past fifty years, there has always been some golden-domed city upon which “educators and politicians from around the world have descended.” Journalists from around the world descend on these cities too.

These gullible people always buy the tales they hear at these sites. In the past decade, it was Helsinki to which these gullible people flew. While there, they swallowed the miracle tales, while enjoying their free week in the fancy hotel.

Now, Hernandez is reporting that all roads lead to Ohio’s Queen City, which is said to have turned mere schools into “community learning centers.”

For the record, this may be a very good idea. Indeed, it’s being done on a very large scale in New York City, as these candidates presumably know. (Fleetingly, Hernandez notes this fact.)

But is this transformation producing higher academic achievement in Cincinnati? Uh-oh! Hernandez says that “an analysis by the New York Times” has found some holes in the latest miracle tale—and the holes seem to be fairly large.

Does Hernandez know what he's talking about? Put it another way: What does intellectual paralysis look like? As we review this “Times analysis,” you should weep for your nation, which is paralyzed by the haplessness of the New York Times.

What does it look like when the Times conduct an “analysis” of a city’s public schools? Following his own remark about the drastic drop in New York, Hernandez introduces some awkward information about Cincinnati:
HERNANDEZ: Even before New York reported a drastic drop in reading and math scores last week on new exams aligned with tougher standards known as Common Core, the candidates were promoting the Cincinnati model on the campaign trail.

But what has gone largely unsaid is that many of Cincinnati’s community schools are still in dire academic straits, according to an analysis by The New York Times, despite millions of dollars in investment and years of reform efforts.

The Ethel M. Taylor Academy, for example, which was one of the first schools to adopt the model, ranked 3,218th out of 3,456 public schools in Ohio in overall academic performance last year. Nearly three-quarters of its fifth-grade class did not pass state reading exams.

“We’re far from where we want to be,” Sean McCauley, the school’s principal, acknowledged. “It’s a struggle.”
Oof! According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (the NAEP), New York City has rather good test scores as major city systems go. (Cincinnati does not take part in the relevant NAEP study.) In what way do Quinn and de Blasio see the Taylor Academy as a model for Gotham?

Already, an experienced reader may be weeping for the kids whose lives are in the hands of gullible candidates of this type. Over the past fifty years, that experienced reader has read many news reports like this, in which gullible leaders troop off to purchase the latest tall tales.

But hold on a minute! Not so fast! As Hernandez continued his apparent debunking, we were struck by the limited intellectual skills of the New York Times.

In this passage, Hernandez pretends to make a sweeping comparison. His effort is a fail:
HERNANDEZ: As a whole, after years of poor performance and an exodus of middle-class families to the suburbs, Cincinnati has made some of the greatest gains in test scores in Ohio in recent years, even though it lags behind state averages. School officials here credit the city’s embrace of the community-schools model, which is now fully in place in 34 of 55 schools in the system.

But testing data show that at eight schools that were pioneers of the model, and that have the longest track record with it, students’ scores have improved but still trail that of other Ohio children, even poor ones.

Last year, for example, 48 percent of seventh graders from low-income backgrounds at the schools, which adopted the model in 2006 and serve large numbers of disadvantaged children, passed state exams in reading, according to a Times analysis of state testing data. Across Ohio, 80 percent of students passed the exams; among poor children statewide, the average was 68 percent.

School officials said it was difficult to compare poor students in Cincinnati with their counterparts across Ohio, noting that students in rural areas faced different challenges.
That’s a pathetic “analysis.” Here’s why:

First, Hernandez makes no attempt to say how much progress has been achieved in Cincinnati. According to his analysis, 48 percent of “poor” seventh-graders in eight highly challenged Queen City schools passed the recent state exams in reading.

But he doesn’t tell us what sorts of gains have been achieved in those schools. What were passing rates like in the past? Hernandez doesn’t say.

Meanwhile, note the scribe’s refusal to perform the simplest type of disaggregation. Hernandez compares “poor” students in eight Cincinnati schools with their “poor” counterparts from around the state. He finds that Cincinnati’s “poor” (low-income) students are still performing substantially worse than their peers statewide, despite the ballyhooed reforms which have stock holders in phlogiston flying in from all over the world.

Gack! Perhaps for “political” reasons, Hernandez has failed to disaggregate fully! In the country on which he’s reporting, low-income black kids still don’t score as well in reading and math as low-income white kids. (Scores by both groups have been rising.)

Cincinnati’s student population is 70 percent black, 24 percent white. Across the state of Ohio, the numbers are quite different. In 2011, the distribution seemed to be roughly 73 percent white, 18 percent black.

For that reason, when Hernandez compares low-income kids in (a few) Cincinnati schools to low-income kids all over Ohio, he is almost surely comparing two different baskets of fruit. He is probably comparing one group which is dominated by low-income black kids to a second group with a much different demographic distribution.

What would happen if Hernandez compared low-income black kids in Cincinnati to low-income black kids around Ohio? To low-income black kids in Cleveland? We have no idea, because this “analysis by the New York Times” failed to perform this bone-simple act, an act so basic that any damn fool would know it should be performed.

At this point, we’ll take a guess! This failure to disaggregate may be the problem to which “school officials” referred in the statement which Hernandez so murkily paraphrased in the last paragraph we have posted. One more guess: The Times may have presented this bungled comparison because it doesn’t want to tell its sheltered readers that low-income black kids still score lower than low-income white kids, even though scores have been rising.

We’re still guessing! Rather than deal with that undesirable fact, the Times chose to present a comparison straight from statistical gong-show Hell. We’ll assume this gruesome decision was made by Hernandez’s editor.

Question: How would Cincinnati’s passing rates look if real comparisons were drawn between directly comparable groups? Who knows! It may be that Cincinnati’s kids are outperforming their peers around the state! But New York Times readers don’t know if that’s true because the glorious Times, true to its charter, failed to conduct a minimally competent analysis.

How much progress has occurred in Cincinnati’s schools? The Times didn’t try to say.

How well do Cincinnati’s students score as compared to their peers around the state? The Times skipped that question too!

It may well be that impressive gains have been occurring in Cincinnati! It may be that Cincinnati kids are outperforming the state! But readers of this hapless newspaper are condemned never to know such things. Instead, they are told, even more forcefully, that a “drastic drop” in test scores occurred in Gotham this year.

What has happened in Cincinnati? There is no sign that the New York Times has any idea. This brings us back to this striking passage in this morning’s report:
HERNANDEZ: In New York City, the Cincinnati model is praised by a diverse circle, including business executives, union officials and hospital employees, who all see it as a cost-effective way to combat poverty and turn around struggling schools.

Four Democratic candidates for mayor—Mr. de Blasio, Ms. Quinn, John C. Liu and William C. Thompson Jr.—visited Cincinnati last year at the invitation of the United Federation of Teachers, New York City’s teachers’ union. For years, antipoverty organizations like the Harlem Children’s Zone and the Children’s Aid Society have operated forms of community learning centers at a small number of New York City schools, but some candidates are hoping to extend the idea to hundreds of them.

Ms. Quinn said city leaders were looking at successful community schools throughout the country, not just in Cincinnati, as they designed a plan for New York. “You’re never going to have a model out there that’s going to be 100 percent perfect,” she said.

Mr. de Blasio said it would take time to improve academic results. “There are no panaceas,” he said.
Do those business executives, union officials and hospital employees have any idea what they’re talking about when they praise “the Cincinnati model” as a way to “turn around struggling schools,” if that's really what they have said? Is there any reason to think that those mayoral candidates know what they’re talking about?

You’ll never learn the answer to that reading the hapless New York Times. But based on the past fifty years, the answer could be no.

For fifty years, groups like these have chased the latest miracle cure. They have believed the various stories of schools that escaped years of dysfunction.

Newspapers like the New York Times have been unwilling, or unable, to perform the basic background work on those repetitive stories. They can’t deliver us from the chairs in which we await our fate, paralyzed back in “the dead room.”

Today’s report is an intellectual mess. But then, such work is par for the course in this paralyzed newspaper—and no one you read in the play-for-pay world is willing to tell you about that!


  1. The best solution to educational problems is to raise children in two parent emotionally, and financially secure families. But of course, that would be taking personal responsibility.

    1. Fox is calling you.

    2. So are Don Lemon and Donald Wycliff. Personal responsibility isn't just a right wing issue. The left abandoned that issue to people who don't believe in using the government to help people. I do. We on the left need to take back the issue of personal responsibility while at the same time using government to help people who are casualties of others lack of personal responsibility.

    3. "Personal responsibility" is code for blame the victim, eliminate taxes and all forms of social support, and everyone for himself, a la libertarianism. It is very much right-wing.

      If you seriously want to help people to better their own conditions through their own efforts, I suggest you find a less loaded term for it.

    4. The best solution to educational problems is to clean up lead from buildings and the soil.

  2. One day, disaggregation is one step removed from crimethink.

    The next day, it is crimethink. And thus does crimethink become an ever more sprawling mass across our culture. If only people would stop making logical inferences!

    1. Well, highly-adequate, you could take it a step further.

      Disaggregation is crimethink in education reporting. But it is required when polling about Weiner's wang and highly emotional trial verdicts.

    2. I don't think that word means what you think it does.

  3. Poo Platter (The Cafe is Closed)

    This particular Anon. is a tribalist. Even our analysts
    are great believers in Bob when it comes to skewering coverage of education and, in particular, education statistics. Therefore, whatever faults may be revealed
    by plumbing the depths of this post, we are on Team Somerby on this issue.

    His post does, however, raise an unanswered point our analysts are eager to explore. If NAEP is the gold standard in educational measurement, and Cincinatti does not participate in the relevant NAEP study, what does that say about use of NAEP to compare, say Ohio to Oregon? What other large holes are created by non participation of major urban systems in "relevant" NAEP studies?

    As a final observation we await the level of commentary on this post. One possible explanation for the abysmal coverage of education and education statistics may lie in the fact that, while most profess interest in educational policy, few really have any.

    1. Incomprehensible nasty rubbish.

    2. The definition of a profession is that the means of evaluating performance are not held by the general public but the competence of professionals is important to public welfare. Teaching is a profession because the general public cannot tell whether it is being well done or not. Professions have ethics and self-evaluation to protect the public from malfeasance.

      One reason why education-related posts receive few comments is because the technicalities of the profession are not accessible to people without specialized training. That is true of the statistics and specifics of educational testing, of the various approaches to teaching children, and of the theories of cognition and child development underlying. However, unlike physics or engineering, people expect to know everything about teaching children simply because they were once a child and the recipient of education, to a lesser or greater extent. So, while most profess interest in educational policy, few people are sufficiently trained to have opinions about the specifics and thus do not know what to post, except to express concern that the schools do a good job. So, Bob's comments here, coming from his experiences and training as an educator, are essential reading but not the basis for a robust dialog as few of us would know what to propose on any specific educational issue, that would be worth reading.

      Someone who has no opinion on a technical matter is not a hypocrite but a wise person, aware of his or her own ignorance. Unlike "poo poo" who just seems to want to make noise here.

    3. "Professions have ethics and self-evaluation to protect the public from malfeasance."

      That's a good one.

      Not as good as the notion that absence of blog commentary is a reflection of the self recognized ignorance of the blog reader. But since you advanced it and did not address the question I posed, I take it you profess ignorance on that topic.

    4. Isn't it obvious that it would be easier to make comparisons if everyone used NAEP? Are you suggesting that the feds compel school districts to use it?

      Do you really expect anyone to take you seriously when you title your comment "Poo"?

    5. I guess you have missed the orgination of the term as used in my comments. Perhaps I should link to it as does Bob to his roots
      in the misreporting of Al's absent roots.

      Do I think anyone will take me seriously? No. No more than I think anyone outside a small fan club takes Somerby seriously.

      But thanks for your taking me seriously.


  4. Brilliant and very much needed analysis, Bob.


  5. From the description, these community centered schools seem like interventions to address social problems that indirectly affect learning. They sound worthwhile but I do not see how they are changes in the way children are educated that might affect scores on a new standard based on the common core. Further, this sounds very much like a return to having a school nurse, not a change in how children are taught in the classroom. Linking this change to test scores makes no sense to me at all.

    If children's performance is so strongly linked to adverse events in the lives of their parents, to the point that community centers are needed, why do we not adjust the NAEP scores based on the unemployment rate or some other indicator of family well-being? Aggregating children based on poverty is a start but perhaps even the scores of relatively well-off children fluctuate with public health or the DOW and maybe the changes in how children are taught have very little to do with changes in their performance at all. If that were true, we could ignore the attempts to improve teaching methods entirely and focus instead of making sure all kids have new shoes.

  6. There are no magic bullets that will cure the pathologies that affect poor children. Historical, familial, social, cultural pathologies that keep many of them from educational achievement. There are no easy answers. No quick fix.

    My heart breaks when I read of the 16 year old shot dead two weeks ago by the NYPD while he was trying to shoot someone on the street. Two months before he had been arrested and charged with attempted murder for shooting at another person. Jesus Christ.
    What happened to the 5 year old, holding his mothers hand, walking to his first day of kindergarten, with a book-bag as big as he was?

    Yet you counter that with the stories of the single parent who works 2 or 3 jobs and raises children who achieve great success. Thank you Jesus.

    Regular readers of this site are thankful to Bob for his work to show that there seems to be gradual improvements (incremental and slow though they may be). And for most of all pointing out the failures of our political, educational and journalistic elites -of all stripes- as they go about gaining power and wealth.

  7. Why do we care what "hospital employees" think about Cincinnati schools? If we care what they think, why weren't radio station employees polled? Greeting card manufacturers? Garbagemen?