Timestalk: Humanities majors on the decline!


None dare call it extinction: On this morning’s front page, the New York Times reports a decline in college humanities majors.

At the end of Tamar Lewin’s report, Leon Botstein is quoted advancing a strange lament:
LEWIN (10/31/13): Many do not understand that the study of humanities offers skills that will help them sort out values, conflicting issues and fundamental philosophical questions, said Leon Botstein, the president of Bard College.

“We have failed to make the case that those skills are as essential to engineers and scientists and businessmen as to philosophy professors,” he said.
Are you kidding? At this point, why would anyone believe that college instruction can impart “skills that will help [people] sort out values, conflicting issues and fundamental philosophical questions?” By now, isn’t it fairly obvious that all such skills are dead? That skills which are vastly simpler have also become extinct?

Consider our posts in the past few days, some of which almost surely involved past humanities majors:

Yesterday, we found that an education reporter, an education editor and the author of an education study didn’t know that eligibility for free and reduced price lunch isn’t a measure of poverty.

Do baseball writers get confused about the number of outs each team gets in an inning? That’s roughly how clueless those three humanities majors seem to be.

After today’s post, it's no longer possible to imagine that Amanda Ripley knows squat or squadoosh about analyzing test scores. Yet she has written a major, ballyhooed book which is built around that practice.

Education writers who reviewed her book were either unable or unwilling to notice this obvious problem. In their reviews, they tended to further embellish the groaning embellishments found all through Ripley’s book.

Last week, Thomas L. Friedman described a recent experience. He visited a school in Shanghai as part of a major international delegation. When he watched a third-grade English class, he noted, with apparent surprise, that the lesson had been well-planned!

Has something been eating the brains of our past humanities majors? It’s hard to watch the way the press works without harboring some such concerns.

Earlier in today’s report, Louis Menand poses a second puzzling framework:
LEWIN: “In the scholarly world, cognitive sciences has everybody’s ear right now, and everybody is thinking about how to relate to it,” said Louis Menand, a Harvard history professor. “How many people do you know who’ve read a book by an English professor in the past year? But everybody’s reading science books.”

Many distinguished humanities professors feel their status deflating. Anthony Grafton, a Princeton history professor who started that university’s humanities recruiting program, said he sometimes feels “like a newspaper comic strip character whose face is getting smaller and smaller.”
One of our favorite people in life is an English professor. Having said that, which book by such a professor does Menand imagine that people should be reading?

Is the status of humanities professors deflating? If so, the professors have richly earned their diminution.

Over the past several decades, our public discourse has been a Babel. Our discourse has cried for clarifications of every conceivable kind. But alas:

The humanities professors have all gone away! If Andrew Hacker can be believed, they may all be in the south of France. But they plainly aren’t up to the task of addressing the fall of the culture.

Let’s return to Jim Sheridan’s 2002 film, In America. In the film, a young father whose son has died describes the way the loss has eaten away his being.

Johnny, an aspiring actor, is no longer fully alive. He’s no longer fully human. In effect, he describes himself as one of the walking dead:
JOHNNY: You know, I asked [God] a favor. I asked him to take me instead of him. And he took the both of us. And look what he put in my place!

I'm a fucking ghost. I don't exist.

I can't think. I can't laugh. I can't cry.

I can't...feel!
Our humanities professors are like that too. Could anything be more obvious? On every day, not just Halloween, they shamble away from the light.

They can no longer think, or relate, or reason. Who would take classes from them?

Meet him far from St. Louis: Meet Me in St. Louis has a wonderful Halloween scene. For us, though, the ultimate Halloween scene is found in In America.

Mateo is from a less rationalistic culture. Invited to Halloween dinner with Johnny’s transplanted Irish family, he explains the nature of the day to a pair of transported girls:
MATEO: Halloween is called the Day of Ancestors, when the dead come back and we hear their voices.

CHRISTIE: How do you hear them?

MATEO: You hear their voices through the men dancing.

ARIEL: What do they say?

MATEO Uh...They complain. "You don't pay attention to me." "You don't feed me." "I'm hungry."

CHRISTIE: Are they ever happy?

MATEO: When they're happy, you never hear from them.
Mateo still perceives the world around him as alive. Our professors no longer perceive the world that way. So who would read their books?

What a gorgeous Halloween scene! First, the trick-or-treat visit to Mateo's apartment. Then, the Irish Halloween dinner where these lost worlds get explained.

Limning Minnesota: They were number two at math!


Or so Ripley said: Was Minnesota number two when it came to the teaching of math?

That’s what Amanda Ripley says in her widely praised book, The Smartest Kids in the World. When it came to the teaching of math, Minnesota was our second-best state.

And not only that! The inspiring state had made remarkable improvement over a twelve-year time span. Once again, we’ll be working from this basic text:
RIPLEY (page 72): Of the three American students I followed, Eric was the only one who did not loathe math. Coincidence or not, Eric’s home state of Minnesota was one of only two states that came close to achieving world-class math performance. Roughly speaking, Minnesota ranked below just a dozen other countries (including Canada, Korea and Finland) in math proficiency; only Massachusetts did better in the United States.

When Eric arrived in Korea, he had a solid math background. There were lots of reasons for this: One might have been that his timing was good. Had he been born earlier, things might have turned out different.

In 1995, Minnesota fourth graders placed below average for the United States on an international math test. Despite being a mostly white, middle-class state, Minnesota was not doing well in math. When Eric started kindergarten two years later, however, the state had smarter and more focused math standards. When he was eleven, Minnesota updated those standards again, with an eye toward international benchmarks. By the time he went to high school, his peers were scoring well above average for the United States and much of the world. In 2007, Minnesota elementary students rocked a major international math test, performing at about the same level as kids in Japan.

What was Minnesota doing that other states were not?
Ripley seems to make these statements:

As of (roughly) 2007, Minnesota was second only to Massachusetts in the teaching of math. According to a major international math test, the state had made remarkable improvement over a twelve-year period.

According to Ripley, Minnesota was doing something that other states were not.

Those claims are very hard to support. To the extent that they’re technically accurate, they’re highly misleading. Here’s why:

Start with Minnesota and Massachusetts. In Ripley’s text, she doesn’t cite a basis for saying that Minnesota trailed only Massachusetts in math proficiency.

In her endnotes, Ripley cites this perfectly valid study by a team of professors. If you scroll to pages 8-9, you’ll see the graphic which is her source.

Among the fifty states, that graphic does show Minnesota ranking below only Massachusetts in the percentage of kids achieving math proficiency. The graphic does include other nations, including the ones Ripley names.

Here’s the rest of the story:

As the text of the study explains, the rankings of the fifty states on that graphic are actually based on their scores in Grade 8 math on the 2007 NAEP. We’re no longer dealing with the TIMSS. We’re now dealing with the NAEP, our major domestic testing program.

On the 2007 Grade 8 NAEP, Minnesota did have the second highest percentage of kids scoring proficient or better among the fifty states. But there’s no mystery about how Minnesota did that:

In large part, Minnesota achieved that ranking because it had lots of white kids.

More specifically, Minnesota had a higher percentage of white kids than other states which actually got better scores, once we disaggregate. Minnesota ranked above those states because it was heavily white.

Consider the way Minnesota compared to Texas on that year’s NAEP math test. Below, you see the way the two states’ average scores break down, once you disaggregate.

Note: On the NAEP scale, ten points is often said to be roughly equal to one academic year. For all NAEP data, start here:
2007 NAEP, Grade 8 math, Minnesota v Texas
White students: Texas 300, Minnesota 297
Black students: Texas 271, Minnesota 260
Hispanic students: Texas 277, Minnesota 269
Among all three major student groups, Texas outscored Minnesota. Minnesota ranked higher than Texas on the graphic Ripley cites because it had a much higher percentage of white kids.

To quote Ripley, “What was Minnesota doing that [Texas] was not?” Simple! It was teaching many more white kids! But then, the same pattern obtains when we compare Minnesota to Maryland and New Jersey:
2007 NAEP, Grade 8 math, Minnesota v Maryland
White students: Maryland 300, Minnesota 297
Black students: Maryland 265, Minnesota 260
Hispanic students: Maryland 272, Minnesota 269

2007 NAEP, Grade 8 math, Minnesota v New Jersey
White students: New Jersey 298, Minnesota 297
Black students: New Jersey 264, Minnesota 260
Hispanic students: New Jersey 271, Minnesota 269
Massachusetts also outscored Minnesota among all three student groups.

We don’t mean this as a slander against Minnesota, which actually is one of our higher-scoring states. It simply wasn’t the second best state when it came to the teaching of math.

In these charts, Minnesota is being outscored among all major groups by several other high-scoring states. Minnesota only ranked second on Ripley’s graphic because it had a higher percentage of white students than most of these other states did.

Let’s be clear: Minnesota wasn’t even the second best state when it came to teaching math to white kids. Again, we don’t mean this as a criticism. But Minnesota’s white students only ranked fifth among the fifty states on that year’s Grade 8 NAEP.

Fifth out of fifty is pretty darn good! But it’s nothing like what Ripley seemed to suggest:
Grade 8 math, 2007 NAEP, white students
Massachusetts 305
Texas 300
Maryland 300
New Jersey 298
Minnesota 297
Virginia 296
Kansas 295
North Dakota 295
North Carolina 295
United States 290
Fifth out of fifty wasn’t half bad! Unfortunately, Minnesota’s black and Hispanic students ranked less well that year. Or don’t we care about them?
Grade 8 math, 2007 NAEP, black students
Oregon 272
Colorado 272
Texas 271
Alaska 271
Virginia 268
Kansas 267
Arizona 266
North Carolina 266
South Carolina 265
Delaware 265
Maryland 265
Massachusetts 264
Washington 264
New Mexico 264
New Jersey 264
Georgia 261
Minnesota 260
Florida 259
United States 259

Grade 8 math, 2007 NAEP, Hispanic students
Texas 277
Ohio 276
Virginia 275
Alaska 274
Wyoming 274
North Carolina 273
Maryland 272
South Carolina 272
New Jersey 271
Missouri 270
Florida 270
Massachusetts 270
South Dakota 269
Minnesota 269
Kansas 269
United States 264
Minnesota’s black students ranked 17th out of 41 states which had a sufficient sample of students. The state’s Hispanic students ranked 14th out of 42 states.

This is not a slander against Minnesota. Having said that, let us also say this: the state did less well at the Grade 4 level. Here you see the rankings the state achieved among the three major groups:
Grade 4 math, 2007 NAEP
Minnesota’s rankings among the fifty states
White students: 6th out of 50 states
Black students: 22nd out of 44 states with a sufficient sample
Hispanic students: 25th out of 45 states
The graphic Ripley used as her source was based on the 2007 NAEP. On that test, Minnesota’s white students scored quite well as compared to their peers in the other states.

That said, the state’s black and Hispanic students scored much less well as compared to their peers. Minnesota only ranked second overall in Grade 8 because it had many fewer minority kids than quite a few other states.

This is not an indictment of Minnesota. It’s an indictment of everyone who played a part in Ripley’s mal-composed book.

It’s an indictment of the upper-class social clubs which present themselves as “think tanks.” It’s an indictment of the education writers who heaped praise on this book—often embellishing Ripley’s embellishments as they penned their fawning reviews.

Ripley is good at human interest writing. She seems to know very little about public schools or about how to read test scores.

To the social clubs which call themselves think tanks, this type of obvious incompetence doesn’t seem to matter. They have a very high sense of entitlement—a sense that they get to do as they please. They also seem to have a strong desire to please the elites which hand them their big piles of cash.

You live in a post-journalistic world. It’s a world of expense accounts, international junkets and novels—“adventure stories.”

Tomorrow: How much did Minnesota improve? Where do things stand today?

MALALA, MATTHEWS AND MADDOW: Hopelessly devoted to being against!


Part 3—Phrenology’s return: Who will Malala Yousafzai turn out to be?

We can’t tell you that. We were so pleased when we watched the tape of her U.N. address that we seem to have misheard one part of what she said.

We were thrilled to hear this very unusual person make this declaration, emphasis hers:

“Dear brothers and sisters! I am not against anyone.”

We were thrilled by that declaration. We were so thrilled that, a bit later one, we thought we heard her say this:
MALALA, AS HEARD: We call upon all the communities to be tolerant—to reject prejudice based on cast, creed, sect, color, religion or agenda.

To ensure freedom and equality for women, so that they can flourish. We cannot all succeed when half of us are held back.
It still sounds to us like she said “agenda.” (Her English is accented, as is everyone else's.) But according to the text of the speech as released, it seems that she may have said “gender” instead.

Since the bulk of the speech concerns the rights of women and girls, we like it better the way we heard it. We’d love to see a fresh new voice condemn intolerance based on agenda—to suggest that we should stop being against other people on that familiar old basis.

It isn’t that you can’t oppose the agenda, whatever that agenda might be. The suggestion would be that you ought to stop being against the person who holds it, just as “Gandhiji” suggested in his “eleven vows.”

You can listen to the address to determine what was said. The statement in question occurs right around the 14:40 mark of that tape.

For ourselves, as we watched that tape, we were instantly struck by a contrast: the contrast between what was being said and the steady diet of being against we now get at our “liberal” organs.

In what sorts of ways are we trained to be against? Let’s run through a few examples, featuring the shameless lengths to which we will go in our desire to loathe.

First example: On Monday night, October 21, Chris and Lawrence were certainly shameless in their desire to loathe. (For background, see yesterday's post.) Ted Cruz had told a stale old joke about the status of governmental Washington. But by the time our ranters were done, Cruz had said that all our cities, and everyone who isn’t white, simply aren’t part of America.

What kind of person has to embellish that way to make a case against Cruz? Before they were done, the ranters were dropping all manner of ugly bombs and blaming people in Texas today for a war which started in 1861.

Did the ranters really believe that Cruz made that racial declaration? We note that others on The One True Channel refused to play that card.

Chris Hayes played tape of Cruz’s remark; it may have been part of the corporate playlist. But he didn’t take that remark to the ugly places favored by Chris and Lawrence:
HAYES (10/21/13): Any moment, Senator Ted Cruz will take the stage at his big homecoming party in Houston, Texas. You see a live shot of that right there.

Just two days ago, Senator Cruz received a standing ovation from Texas Federation of Republican Women’s State Convention in San Antonio, Texas.

CRUZ (videotape): Thank you. That is a slightly different reception than I get in Washington, D.C. And having spent the past month up in D.C., it is really great to be back in America.

HAYES: Get it? Earlier the same day, Cruz spoke to the Texas Medical Association in Austin, Texas.

Just a quick recap, in case you found that confusing. Senator Cruz, having flown in from the foreign country of Washington, D.C. to his home state of Texas, is right now celebrating his great big homecoming in his home state of Texas.

The Houston Tea Party is more than willing to offer up its adoration, but Cruz has become one of the most polarizing figures in national politics...
To Hayes' credit, that was as far as he went. He snarked a bit about Cruz's remark, but he didn’t play race cards.

Later, a guest from Texas, Evan Smith, tried to introduce the secession card. Hayes took a pass on that too. We are glad he did.

Did Cruz make an ugly racial remark when he offered that lame old quip? Actually no, he didn’t. But various “liberals” are eager to train you in the ways of being against:

Remember the disgraceful ways Olbermann slimed Carrie Prejean? (Liberal leaders attacked his misogyny in private, refused to speak up in public.)

Remember the ways Rachel directed dick jokes at the tea-baggers night after night, for more than a week, while pretending to be embarrassed? (When Jon Stewart told her she shouldn’t have done it, she still wouldn’t say she wrong. Instead, she disputed the length of time involved in this sad episode.)

More recently, do you remember the way Alan Grayson dropped the KKK-bomb on millions of heads? (DNC chairwoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz said she was “disappointed” by his remarkable conduct.)

Actually, there’s a good chance you don’t remember that! The repellent conduct was widely discussed—on Fox. But the Nexis archives record no instance in which it was mentioned on MSNBC.

On The One True Channel, we liberals are trained to be against, even to hate. And when The Hate goes crazily over the line, we’re shielded from such knowledge!

Didn’t we always say it was wrong when Fox played the game that way?

How pitifully dumb can our conduct become as we seek ways to be against? Consider the sad, pathetic piece they recently ran at Salon.

The piece was written by Lynn Stuart Parramore. Originally, it appeared at Alternet.

We’ll say this for Salon: they gave fair warning to readers, right in their headlines. This is the way the piece began, twin headlines included:
PARRAMORE (10/21/13) Inside the conservative brain: Tea Partyers are afraid/
To understand their worldview you have to know how they see themselves

As America is torn apart by extremists, maybe a deep dive into our individual and collective psychology is a good way to start figuring out what’s happening to us.

The problem, as it turns out, may be the difference in the way people view individuals and collectives; whether you’ve got a “me” or a “we” focus; and how big those categories happen to be.
You’re right! Those first two paragraphs are rather fuzzy. But the warning lights were flashing red in those headlines.

At Salon, we were going inside the other tribe’s brain to find out how “they” see themselves! But then, this is the way it’s always been framed by the world’s least enlightened souls:

“They” (Those People) are all alike! Something is wrong inside their brain!

Phrenology alert! It’s one short step to the oldest way of being against:

Those People aren’t fully human!

Go ahead—read the Parramore piece. Yes, Salon actually published this mess. The devolving journal was helping us learn how to be against:
PARRAMORE (continuing directly): john a. powell (his name is spelled without capitals) leads the UC Berkeley Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society and is considered a leading thinker on race and ethnicity. He spoke Wednesday evening in Manhattan at the Union Theological Seminary as part of a joint series on Economics & Theology put on by UTS and the Institute of New Economic Thinking. INET’s executive director Rob Johnson, along with UTS president Serene Jones and Rachel Godsil of the American Values Institute, joined powell in a lively panel focused on how issues of race and belonging inform what’s happening in America today.

powell thinks a lot about meaning and being—what philosophers call ontology. He pays attention to the multiple levels at which humans exist and our struggle to make meaning of our lives, both as individuals and as groups. Along with Godsil, he studies how biases operate in our unconscious, with profound consequences for how we react to the world and each other.

The Tea Party is a fascinating case study for how these questions and ideas play out. Its members are bonded in anxiety and terror—a very powerful glue—over what America is becoming: something other than the “real America” they wish to belong to. Their America is white, Protestant and Anglo-Saxon (it’s no accident that the right’s leading think tank is called the Heritage Foundation).

powell notes that while Tea Party members will tolerate a bit of diversity—the occasional Catholic or Jew—they primarily wish to protect the distinctiveness of their chosen group in the past, present and future. For them, someone like Obama represents the ultimate threat to maintaining this distinctiveness, the thing that makes them feel special. With his black/Muslim/immigrant associations he becomes the “trifecta of Otherness”—an unholy trinity that must be resisted at all costs. The Tea Partyer perceives the president as the incarnation of a malevolent force that will take from them and give to Others. He is both the incarnation and the welcoming committee for the Stranger who doesn’t belong in America.
We’d have to say that approaches “hate speech” of a familiar kind.

Powell “thinks a lot about meaning and being?” Try to pretend no one ever said that! Focus on the familiar old structure in which we are told these things:

“Biases operate in our unconscious, with profound consequences for how we react to the world and each other.” And those biases are found in the other tribe, not so much in ours!

There you see the classic formula by which we’re trained to hate. At no point does Parramore feel the need to offer evidence for her sweeping claims about the very unpleasant things The Other Tribe thinks.

Do all Tea Partyers have the unpleasant thoughts she confidently describes? So all Tea Partyers think that, “with his black/Muslim/immigrant associations, Obama becomes the ‘trifecta of Otherness’—an unholy trinity that must be resisted at all costs?”

At no point does Parramore feel the need to support or qualify her sweeping statements. As she continues, she tells us what Those People think about Social Security:
PARRAMORE (continuing directly): As an illustration, powell looks at how Tea Partyers feel about Social Security, which is coming under vigorous attack just as default has been avoided. When asked individually, powell finds that the Tea Partyer likes the program a lot. But she only likes it for her own group—for people who have, in her view, “worked for it.” She doesn’t want the Others to have it because she doesn’t want to be connected to “Them.” “They” don’t work the way she does. “They” don’t care about America as she does. “They” don’t belong in America. This divide between the small group and the larger community can be leveraged by politicians who wish to sway them.
Do all Tea Partyers feel those ways about Social Security? And by the way:

How does powell know that anyone feels that way? Parramore never says. When we’re in training to be against, there’s no need to explain!

We shouldn’t even mention Malala in connection with this horrible mess. But when we saw her tell the U.N. that she isn’t against anyone, this is what we thought about—this growing, embarrassing mess, variants of which are being advanced all over the “liberal” world.

Tomorrow: Rachel Maddow, against

A basic point of fairness: We don't know what powell said. This is all Parramore’s account. She enters forty million minds, tells us what They are thinking.

The first time the Cardinals invaded Fenway!


We take our revenge on Harry The Cat/A visit from Bud and Lou: This year marks the fourth time the St. Louis Cardinals have traveled to Fenway for the World Series.

The first time was 1946, when the Cardinals went to Boston for games 3-5. Years later, David Kruh wrote a book about Boston’s entertainment district, the old Scollay Square, which is of course long gone.

What happened when the Cardinals hit town that year? In his fascinating book, Kruh reprinted someone's reminiscence about an event which transpired at the Old Howard, our father’s theater.

This was before our time. Then again, we know how an audience reacts to something like this. Twain, a lover and hater of people, understood this too:
It was right after World War II and the Red Sox had been in the World Series and a friend of mine and I went to the Old Howard. Right in the middle of the show when a comedian is doing his thing this fat guy comes out of one side of the stage chasing this gorgeous-looking girl. Who was it but Lou Costello of Abbott and Costello! They stopped the show, and the manager came out and they reminisced how they had started in burlesque and played the Howard at some point. They were in Boston for the World Series and they decided to come back to their former starting place. They stopped the show, and they did “Who’s on First?”
People think they’ve gone to heaven when something like that occurs.

Bud and Lou were never our favorites, but they were huge movie stars in 1946. We have family photos of them cavorting with our half-sister Shirley and our half-brother Dick, who was about ten at the time.

“The most exciting day of my life,” the gentleman still declares.

The Cardinals won the series in 7. Games 2, 6 and 7 were won by Harry “The Cat” Brecheen, one of the cruelest, least principled men in the history of major league baseball.

In 1959, at eleven years of age, we were able to take our revenge. Our father was no longer living. Harry “The Cat” Brecheen’s brother was.

With a nod to Shakespeare’s less proactive Hamlet, let’s just leave it at that.

The Old Howard was long before our time. Cummings saw it like this:
Humanity i love you
because you would rather black the boots of
success than enquire whose soul dangles from his
watch-chain which would be embarrassing for both

parties and because you
unflinchingly applaud all
songs containing the words country home and
mother when sung at the old howard...
The Old Howard served the swells and the regular people. For the full text, click here.

How many students are living in poverty?


The way journalism works: Roughly 315 million people live in the U.S.

Given that fact, you’d think a recent report in Education Week simply couldn’t exist.

The piece, which was written by Sarah Sparks, concerns the rising number of American children who are living in poverty. It starts like this, headlines included:
SPARKS (10/23/13): Poor Children Are Now a Majority in 17 States' Public Schools
Study finds poverty rising in every state since 2000

Nearly half of all American public school students now live in poverty, and in broad swaths of the South and Southwest, state supports have not kept pace with significant and rapidly rising majorities of poor students in classrooms, a new report finds.
Could that possibly be true, we wondered, if only for a brief moment. Could it be true that nearly half of American students are now living in poverty?

We were fairly sure it wasn’t true. Beyond that, we figured we probably knew what Sparks must have in mind.

Sure enough! As the piece continued, this is what it said:
SPARKS (continuing directly): In 17 states spanning nearly all of the South, Southwest, and West Coast, a majority of public school students qualified for free or reduced-price meals in 2011, according to the analysis released last week by the Atlanta-based Southern Education Foundation.
Gack! You don’t have to be living in poverty to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch! The eligibility cut-off is approximately two times the poverty level.

The average person would have no reason to know that. But this report appeared in Education Week, the journalistic Bible for American teachers. Theoretically, we have journalists to straighten such matters out!

In a rational world, it would be hard to believe that such an error could appear in such a journal. But you don’t live in a rational world. You live in a post-journalistic dystopian large mega-mess.

The breakdown isn’t confined to Fox and Salon. As Sparks continued, she just kept compounding her howler:
SPARKS (continuing directly): That's up from four states in 2000, and the study found all states have seen a rapid rise in student poverty during the last decade. Thirty-six states now have statewide poverty rates of more than 40 percent in schools. Mississippi's rate now tops 70 percent.

That deepening poverty likely will complicate already-fraught political discussions on how to educate American students, as prior research has shown students are significantly more at risk academically in schools with 40 percent or higher concentrations of poverty.

"Once you get above a majority of students in poverty, it becomes increasingly difficult to deal with the problems they've got, and increasingly those problems come to define the direction of the whole school," said Steve T. Suitts, the vice president of the foundation and the author of the study.

Urban areas in every part of the country now have majorities of students in poverty, from 54 percent in Western cities to 71 percent in the Northeast. But nationwide, two out of five students in the suburbs also are poor. In the South and West, the share is closer to half.
Two out of five students in the suburbs are living in poverty! If the suburb is in the west, the ration is more like half.

According to Sparks, the author of the new study was shocked by what he found. We were shocked by the author of the new study:
SPARKS (continuing directly): Mr. Suitts said he found it "stunning" that three out of every four districts in 15 states across the southern half of the country now have at least 50 percent of their students living in poverty—and often much more. "That pretty well means there's no place you can get away" from concentrated poverty, Mr. Suitts said.
Suitts is stunned, and we are too. Within our broken culture, it isn’t just the journalists who cluelessly wander the land. It’s also the people at our foundations, the ones who conduct our research!

There are roughly 315 million people in the United States. One of those people, Sparks’ editor, let this groaner pass.

Limning Minnesota: Rocking the TIMSS!


Ripley’s first round of embellishments: Did public school students in Minnesota “rock a major international test” in 2007?

That’s what Amanda Ripley says in her widely praised book, The Smartest Kids in the World. Just to refresh you, here’s the passage in which she makes that assessment:
RIPLEY (page 72): Of the three American students I followed, Eric was the only one who did not loathe math. Coincidence or not, Eric’s home state of Minnesota was one of only two states that came close to achieving world-class math performance. Roughly speaking, Minnesota ranked below just a dozen other countries (including Canada, Korea and Finland) in math proficiency; only Massachusetts did better in the United States.

When Eric arrived in Korea, he had a solid math background. There were lots of reasons for this: One might have been that his timing was good. Had he been born earlier, things might have turned out different.

In 1995, Minnesota fourth graders placed below average for the United States on an international math test. Despite being a mostly white, middle-class state, Minnesota was not doing well in math. When Eric started kindergarten two years later, however, the state had smarter and more focused math standards. When he was eleven, Minnesota updated those standards again, with an eye toward international benchmarks. By the time he went to high school, his peers were scoring well above average for the United States and much of the world. In 2007, Minnesota elementary students rocked a major international math test, performing at about the same level as kids in Japan.

What was Minnesota doing that other states were not? The answer was not mystical. Minnesota had started with a relatively strong education system. Then they’d made a few pragmatic changes, the kind of common sense repairs you would make if you believed math was really, truly important—and that all kids were capable of learning it.
In that passage, Ripley says Minnesota “was one of only two states that came close to achieving world-class math performance” at the time in question. She stresses the improvement Minnesota made between 1995 and 2007, when she says it rocked that major international test.

The test in question is the TIMSS, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study. Did Minnesota really rock that test?

We wouldn’t necessarily say so. Let’s start by noting one major qualification:

The TIMSS tests students in Grade 4 and Grade 8. If you read carefully, you will see that Ripley only claims that Minnesota rocked the TIMSS at the Grade 4 level.

Did the state actually do that? On the TIMSS scale, 500 is set as the average score, with a standard deviation of 100.

These are the Grade 4 scores in 2007. Not all the world’s countries took part. We are including every country which scored above 510:
Grade 4 math, 2007 TIMSS:
Hong Kong 607
Singapore 599
Taiwan 576
Japan 568
Minnesota 554
Kazakhstan 549
Russia 544
England 541
Latvia 537
Netherlands 535
Lithuania 530
United States 529
Germany 525
Denmark 523
Australia 516
International average 500
Did Minnesota rock that Grade 4 test? It’s pretty much as you like it! The state scored behind all the Asian tigers, ahead of all the countries in Europe which took part.

(Finland didn’t show up.)

In Grade 8, Minnesota scored 532. The state still trailed all the Asian nations, in this case by larger margins. (Korea took part in Grade 8, scoring 597.) It still outscored all participating European countries.

We wouldn’t say that Minnesota rocked that Grade 4 test. Still, the state outscored the United States and all European nations. This brings us to Ripley’s second claim, concerning Minnesota’s alleged large improvement over the course of twelve years.

In her book, Ripley goes on for several pages, describing the efforts which explain why Minnesota improved so much from 1995 to 2007. But how much did the state improve in its math performance?

In some ways, not that much! Or at least, no more than many states did.

Below, you see Minnesota’s scores (and those of the United States as a whole) on the TIMSS in the years in question. Minnesota’s score improved by 38 points at Grade 4, but by only 14 points at Grade 8:
Minnesota, Grade 4 TIMSS, math:
1995: 516 (U.S. 518)
2007: 554 (U.S. 529)

Minnesota, Grade 8 TIMSS, math:
1995: 518 (U.S. 492)
2007: 532 (U.S. 508)
In our view, Ripley’s portrait falters a bit as we look at these numbers.

According to Ripley, “Minnesota was not doing well in math” in 1995. But in both grades tested on the TIMSS, Minnesota outscored the international average that year, which is always set at 500.

At Grade 8, Minnesota also outscored the national average, by a healthy 26 points.

Twelve years later, Minnesota’s eighth graders produced a higher score on the TIMSS—but so did the U.S. as a whole. (This means that quite a few other states had also shown improvement.) If we rely on TIMSS scores alone, Minnesota’s fourth-graders gained ground on the nation during this period, but the state’s eighth-graders did not.

Why then does Ripley imply, in the fourth paragraph quoted above, that Minnesota showed much more improvement than other states during this twelve-year period? She writes:

“What was Minnesota doing that other states were not?” We’re not sure! But at the eighth-grade level, the fifty states gained an average of 16 points in math while Minnesota was gaining 14!

Ripley also writes this about Eric: “By the time he went to high school, his peers were scoring well above average for the United States and much of the world.” In fact, the state’s eighth-graders were always well above average for the U.S., by a consistent amount. Minnesota’s relative standing hadn’t changed during the twelve years in question.

As a general matter, we don’t think Ripley’s portrait is justified by those TIMSS scores. We don’t see Minnesota doing all that poorly in 1995. Over the next twelve years, we don’t see Minnesota making the type of unparalleled progress that Ripley’s portrait suggests.

Then too, there’s one last point. Did Minnesota’s fourth-graders really “place below average for the United States” in 1995?

Technically yes, they did! The United States scored 518 that year; Minnesota scored 516. But on the TIMSS scale, that is an utterly trivial difference. It’s silly to say that Minnesota “placed below average” for the U.S., except to set up a good story.

That two-point difference is utterly trivial. If you doubt that, look at the way Ripley treats the twelve-point difference between Japan and Minnesota in 2007.

In 2007, Japan outscored Minnesota by 12 points. According to Ripley, this meant that Minnesota was “performing at about the same level as kids in Japan.”

She took a different approach in 1995. In that year, the U.S. outscored Minnesota by only two points. This meant that Minnesota “placed below average for the United States.”

Alas! All through this widely praised book, thumbs appear on many scales as Ripley constructs her stories. In this case, we see no clear sign that Minnesota improved much more than other states did, a key part of Ripley’s portrait. We even find ourselves daring to wonder if the TIMSS might perhaps have gotten a bad sample of Minnesota’s fourth graders in 1995!

Luckily, other data exist; as usual, Ripley makes no attempt to consult them. Why bother? She gets a good story from the TIMSS, Grade 4 level only.

Additional data do exist. They help us answer the questions Ripley poses:

Is Minnesota really our number two state in the teaching of math? Did Minnesota really show more improvement down through the years than the other states did?

It’s stunningly silly to make such claims without consulting the full range of data. Tomorrow, we’ll start to look at NAEP scores for the period in question. When we do, we’ll see Ripley’s embellished claims continue to break down.

Here's the good news: Many states seemed to improve in math during that twelve-year period! As is almost always the case, the actual story seems a bit brighter than the tale Ripley tells.

One final, extremely basic point: To the extent that Minnesota can be ranked number two in math, it’s only because the state has lots of white kids. Throughout her book, Ripley seems completely oblivious to such basic factors.

So do the tools who reviewed her book. You live in a post-journalistic world, a fact the reviews make clear.



Part 2—Being against Ted Cruz: We’ll admit it:

We were thrilled by William Dalrymple’s column in Saturday’s New York Times, which we repeatedly read. See our previous post in this series.

We were thrilled when we went upstairs to watch the tape of Malala Yousafzai’s address at the United Nations in July, on her sixteenth birthday.

We were thrilled to see this very unusual person declare her lineage from the greatest souls in world history, starting with “the Lord Buddha” and moving through Dr. King and Mandela. We’ll recommend watching that speech, which runs about 17 minutes.

Given the degradation of our own political culture, we were intrigued to see this unusual voice emerge from a different part of the world. In her address, Malala referred to the philosophy of nonviolence she had learned from “Ganghiji.”

She said she was honored to be wearing a shawl which had belonged to “Benazir Bhutto Shaheed.”

We looked up the honorifics. Roughly, she was referring to the great Gandhi and to Benazir Bhutto, martyr.

Beyond that, we were struck by the following statement, which instantly made us think of our own degraded culture:

“Dear sisters and brothers, I am not against anyone.”

The emphasis was hers. What does it mean, to not be against anyone?

We’ll recommend that you watch the address and see the way Malala unspooled it. We were surprised to learn that a widely-employed modern precept tracks to the 1929 autobiography in which Gandhi wrote this:

“Hate the sin and not the sinner” is a precept which, though easy enough to understand, is rarely practiced, and that is why the poison of hatred spreads in the world.

Whatever! At any rate, American liberals are now being trained, every night, in the best ways to be against. Consider the training we liberals received on The One True Channel last Monday.

At 7 PM, Chris Matthews appeared. He emerged from the weekend spilling with bluster.

Ted Cruz had said a very bad thing. Chris was quite strongly against.

“Cruz out of control,” the offended host barked as the program began. Then, he handed us this pile of bullroar:
MATTHEWS (10/21/13): Good evening. I’m Chris Matthews, out in Chicago. Let me start tonight with this:

It’s a little weird, but is Chicago part of America? Is Philadelphia, my hometown, where I’m going to address the National Constitution Center tomorrow? Is Philly part of America? Is LA? Is San Francisco? Is Austin, Texas?

The reason I’m asking this stupid question is because this partisan gunslinger, Ted Cruz, is out there today defining who is and who isn’t an American. Remember Michele Bachmann asking the press on this show to conduct a person-to-person investigation of who in the U.S. Congress is anti-American? Well, Cruz is worse.

The same senator who suggested the nominee for defense secretary was taking money from the Communists in North Korea now decrees what part of this country are in and which parts are out, which parts are American and which parts aren’t. This is McCarthyism writ large. Disagree with this guy, and be prepared for the accusations.
We agree with Chris on one basic point—he was asking a stupid question. He was also training American liberals in the best ways to be very dumb, in the ways to be dumbly against.

As you can see, Chris was training us to be against Ted Cruz. According to the red-faced host, Cruz had offered “an indictment against the great majority of Americans” over the weekend. Incredibly, Cruz had decreed which parts of the country are American and which parts aren’t!

“To oppose his brand of right-wing politics is to stand accused by him of being un-American,” the red-faced talker alleged. American liberals were being trained in the way to be against

At this point, gasping for air, Chris played the actual tape of what Cruz had actually said. Quickly, he paraphrased for us.

When he did, he played the ultimate Hate Card:
MATTHEWS (continuing directly): Cruz returned to his supporters this weekend, where he got shouts of approval Saturday night from his most fervent backers. Here he is, drawing the line between them and his following senators, and by the way, all the people represented in Washington.

CRUZ (videotape): Having spent the past month up in D.C., it is really great to be back in America.

MATTHEWS: Howard Fineman’s editorial director of the Huffington Post and David Corn is Washington bureau chief for Mother Jones. Both are, of course, MSNBC political analysts.

Howard, this isn’t a casual reference. This is, “We’re Americans, we white people out here in Texas, as opposed to people who live in the big cities, the ethnics, the blacks, the browns. Those people in Washington, those liberals, they’re not Americans.”

This guy either has a total lack of understanding of American history and the hell we went through in the McCarthy period or he knows it damn well and is playing that card. What do you think it is, knowledge or ignorance?
Wow! Even for Matthews, that was an especially ugly translation of a very familiar type of stock joke. According to Matthews, Cruz was saying that white people in Texas are Americans, but black people in cities are not.

Chris is determined to make you a hater. Sadly, Howard Fineman was up to the challenge posed by his terrible host. Both men are paid by The One True Channel to tell you things like this:
FINEMAN (continuing directly): No, no. I think— I think he knows what, I think he knows exactly what he’s doing. I think he knows what landmines he’s stepping on, and I think he wants to step on them because his basic appeal is emotional. It’s basically, "Us Against Them."

And of course, it’s highly ironic that he was speaking in the only state in the union, I think, that has an active secessionist movement going on, namely Texas.

Howard even played the secession card, thus training us further in The Hate. Howard Fineman was teaching us liberals how to be against.

Can we discuss what Cruz actually said? He told a very lame, very stale joke, a type of joke which is completely familiar in our lamebrain politics.

Chris is completely familiar with this old trope. So is his echo, Fineman.

Please! In telling that tired old joke, Cruz wasn’t saying that Chicago isn’t part of America. Quite literally, Cruz was saying that Washington, D.C.—governmental Washington—isn’t part of America.

Just go back and read what he said.

This is the stalest reference in our very stale politics. In our view, it’s very tired and very dumb, but it’s also very familiar. As Matthews and Fineman understand, it isn’t a reference to Philadelphia. And it isn’t a reference to “white people,” or by ugly extension to “people who live in the big cities, the ethnics, the blacks, the browns.”

Matthews was simply spreading The Hate. As he has done for the past fifteen years, Fineman was playing along.

Way back when, these two fallen souls were spreading The Hate about Candidate Gore, working to get Bush elected. Now, The Channel pays them large sums to spread The Hate and The Dumb in a different direction.

Matthews was spreading pure hatred this night. Neither Fineman nor David Corn was willing to stand up and say so.

Three hours later, Lawrence came on. He too was eager to teach us how to be blindly, dumbly against.

This is the way an angry soul started his program that night:
O’DONNELL (10/21/13): The architect of the government shutdown, the senator leading the civil war inside the Republican Party, went home to Texas this weekend to continue his attack against the Republican Party. And when Rafael “Ted” Cruz went to speak to the Texas Federation of Republican Women, he got this welcome.

CRUZ (videotape): That is a slightly different reception than I get in Washington, D.C. And having spent the past month up in D.C., it is really great to be back in America.

O’DONNELL: Nice. Classy. So there is a senator who is standing in a state that literally went to war with Washington, D.C., actually seceded from the union because it didn’t want to be part of America, and he is standing there in that state claiming now that that state, which used to be Mexico and less than 30 years after being part of Mexico, told America that it did not want to be part of the United States anymore?

Ted Cruz is standing there in that state claiming that that state is America, the state that tried to rip the United States of America apart. And that Washington, D.C., and maybe the states that succeeded in holding America together, are not America.
Lawrence threw in Cruz’s formal first name, reminding us that he is Hispanic, perhaps hoping to spread The Hate. If you feel sure that isn’t what Lawrence did, you may not grasp the actual ways of our world.

Lawrence played the Hate Card hard in that opening statement. He even played a 150-year old War Card, the way people do in the Balkans.

He urged his viewers to stay angry about the fact that Texas seceded from the union in 1861. He pretended that Cruz was “maybe” saying that “the states that succeeded in holding America together are not America.”

We’re going to tell you a little secret about where this particular hatred comes from. We had no clue about the following point until it was explained to us by a journalist who, like us, comes from a mid-century East Coast Irish Catholic background:

We Irish! Newly arrived in the 1860s, we got conscripted to fight in that damn Civil War! Ever since then, we were told by this journalist, there has been a special animus within some of our circles against Those People Down There.

That would never have occurred to us. But the pattern does seem fairly obvious once it has been suggested. Example: To see Jimmy Breslin attacking Candidate Gore in 1999 for his “quaint Tobacco Row customs,” just click here.

Warning! You're being exposed to journalistic porn if you click that link! For background on that ugly, factually bogus column, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/2/08.

Most of Us Irish have long since moved on. But those of us with the reddest of asses simply can’t surrender The Hate. We just can’t quit The Dumb.

Matthews has been a highly paid cable spear-chucker since the 1990s. Through the early part of this century, he worked as a spear-chucker for his conservative owner, Jack Welch, against both Clintons and Gore.

Now, he’s paid to chuck his spears in a different direction. For unknown reasons, O’Donnell has the reddest ass that ever emerged from Dorchester, home of our cousins in childhood.

“I am not against anyone,” a new voice from a different tradition said at the U.N. Meanwhile, on cable, we liberals are trained every night in dumb ways to be against.

Go ahead—watch the tape of that U.N. address! Can you hear the difference?

Tomorrow: Rachel Maddow, against

About that tradition from Gandhi: Gandhi is commonly said to have advanced “eleven vows.”

You almost surely wouldn’t want to follow some of those vows. We stand with you on that!

That said, one of those vows was satya—“truth.” Presumably, Chris, Howard and Lawrence all knew they were stomping that value last Monday.

In fairness, they were advancing three higher vows:

The vow to be extremely dumb. The vow to serve the paymaster. And, of course, the most obvious vow:

The vow to be against.

We humans love to be against. Did you watch the U.N. address?

On first looking into Boston’s Fenway Park!


Momma raised us kids right: Here’s the box score of the first Red Sox game we ever attended.

It was Opening Day 1956; we were barely eight. For some reason, our sainted mother decided to take our sister and us to the Fens.

One day later, we flawlessly described the action to an enthralled third grade class.

The Red Sox started the season with three straight wins that year. We recall coming home from school on this, the afternoon of their first loss, to find our mother out in the yard.

When you root for a team, they don’t always win, the sainted woman explained.

People, that is so true! Momma raised us kids right!

It was windy and cold in the famous old yard as a pair of young children complained. Luckily, the play was just as brisk as the breeze.

Length of game: 2:19! When we got home, we had time to prepare a thought-provoking yet concise show-and-tell.

Richly schooled: Bruni speaks!


Everyone knows about schools: Frank Bruni doesn’t seem to know a whole lot about public schools.

In fairness, Bruni has never covered schools. There’s no reason why he should know much about that important topic.

Bruni doesn’t seem to know much about schools, but when has that ever stopped anyone? In today’s New York Times, he evaluates, or pretends to evaluate, a ballot measure in Colorado which would increase the state’s education funding while raising the state income tax.

Is the ballot measure a good plan? We don’t know, and there’s little sign that Bruni knows either:
BRUNI (10/29/13): The state is on the precipice of something big. On Election Day next Tuesday, Coloradans will decide whether to ratify an ambitious statewide education overhaul that the Legislature already passed and that Gov. John Hickenlooper signed but that voters must now approve, because Colorado law gives them that right in regard to tax increases, which the overhaul entails. Arne Duncan, the nation’s education secretary, has said that the success of Amendment 66, which is what voters will weigh in on, would make Colorado “the educational model for every other state to follow.”

It’s significant in many regards, especially in its creation of utterly surprising political bedfellows. Amendment 66 has the support of many fervent advocates of charter schools, which the overhaul would fund at nearly the same level as other schools for the first time...

[The proposal involves an] infusion of an extra $950 million annually into public education through the 12th grade, a portion of which could go to rehiring teachers who lost jobs during the recession and to hiring new ones for broadly expanded preschool and kindergarten programs. That’s an increase of more than 15 percent over current funding levels, which put Colorado well behind most other states in per-pupil spending...
The proposed “overhaul” would increase the state’s funding of charter schools. It would permit some teachers to be rehired. It would expand preschool and kindergarten programs in unspecified ways and to an unspecified degree.

According to Bruni, Colorado spends much less money per pupil than most other states. This overhaul would raise per-pupil spending by 15 percent.

Would that create parity with other states? Bruni doesn’t say. Later, Bruni says the overhaul would “direct more money proportionally to poor schools and at-risk students.”

Is this proposal some sort of big deal? We have no idea. Almost surely, neither does Bruni, who wrote an extremely vague column.

Can we talk? There’s no sign that Bruni has any idea what he’s talking about in this column. That said, it’s fairly clear that he knows a few talking points:

At one point, Bruni says there’s “no magic bullet for student improvement;” Wendy Kopp recites that bromide in her sleep. As the column proceeds, Bruni shows facility with another mandated pundit point. We refer to the places where he discusses the role of those infernal teachers union.

Bruni plays this familiar card throughout his column. Snarking nicely, he mentions the unions in five successive paragraphs.

It never seems to occur to Bruni that many teachers in Colorado may know more about these proposals than he does. Judging from the column itself, we will venture a guess: it’s possible that everyone in Colorado knows more about this proposed overhaul than Bruni.

Bruni doesn’t seem to know much about this “overhaul,” but he managed to kill a column this way. Last Wednesday, Tom Friedman did a similar paint-by-the-numbers column about the Shanghai public schools.

Friedman didn’t say there’s no magic bullet. He said there’s no “secret.”

Can we talk? In our post-journalistic culture, everyone is an expert on schools! Everyone except the people who get assigned to be education reporters.

Last week, Motoko Rich did a news report in the Times about a somewhat recent set of international test scores. In the early 1990s, Rich graduated summa cum laude from Yale. That fact seems a bit surprising to us, because 1) she seems to know little about public schools, and 2) she seems to have a hard time composing coherent reports about even the most basic topics.

Her editor is part of this too! For our previous post on the topic, click here.

Last week’s news report struck us as especially incompetent. That said, you live in a post-journalistic world. In the next few days, we’ll look at the way this New York Times education reporter covered a very basic topic, the kind of topic which is being discussed pretty much all the time.

Columnists sometimes like to pretend that they know about public schools, though it rarely seems that they do. More horribly, education reporters often seem caught in the grip of the same affliction.

We thought Rich’s report was especially weak. Tomorrow: Back to the future!

Limning Minnesota: Reviewing Ripley's portrait!


How much of her portrait is false: For starters, let’s undertake a bit of review:

In her widely-praised book, The Smartest Kids in the World, Amanda Ripley paints a flattering portrait of Minnesota’s public schools.

“Eric” is one of three exchange students Ripley followed to foreign lands. In this passage, she suggests that Eric was lucky to come from Minnesota, given the state’s success with the teaching of math, the result of a great improvement:
RIPLEY (page 72): Of the three American students I followed, Eric was the only one who did not loathe math. Coincidence or not, Eric’s home state of Minnesota was one of only two states that came close to achieving world-class math performance. Roughly speaking, Minnesota ranked below just a dozen other countries (including Canada, Korea and Finland) in math proficiency; only Massachusetts did better in the United States.

When Eric arrived in Korea, he had a solid math background. There were lots of reasons for this: One might have been that his timing was good. Had he been born earlier, things might have turned out different.

In 1995, Minnesota fourth graders placed below average for the United States on an international math test. Despite being a mostly white, middle-class state, Minnesota was not doing well in math. When Eric started kindergarten two years later, however, the state had smarter and more focused math standards. When he was eleven, Minnesota updated those standards again, with an eye toward international benchmarks. By the time he went to high school, his peers were scoring well above average for the United States and much of the world. In 2007, Minnesota elementary students rocked a major international math test, performing at about the same level as kids in Japan.

What was Minnesota doing that other states were not? The answer was not mystical. Minnesota had started with a relatively strong education system. Then they’d made a few pragmatic changes, the kind of common sense repairs you would make if you believed math was really, truly important—and that all kids were capable of learning it.
Nothing we will say this week is meant to be a criticism of Minnesota’s schools.

That said, Ripley paints a very flattering portrait of The Land of Lakes. (Insert pun here. Recommended: “Butters it up.”) The state comes close to achieving world-class status in math, she says. Only Massachusetts does better—and Minnesota’s improvement has been quite impressive:

In 1995, Minnesota’s fourth-graders were below average for the U.S., we are (foolishly) told. But only twelve years later, “Minnesota elementary students rocked a major international test, performing at about the same level as kids in Japan.”

As we will see in the next few days, that passage is larded with embellishments and misunderstandings. We don’t mean that as a criticism of Minnesota’s schools. But Ripley’s book is full of embellished tales, and this is just one more.

In that passage, Ripley is describing Minnesota’s performance on the “major international test” known as the TIMSS, although she never names the TIMSS and ignores it almost everywhere else in the book. (Full name: The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study.) In this earlier passage, she is referring to the state’s performance on a different international test, the PISA (The Program for International Student Assessment):
RIPLEY (page 47): Before he’d even left the United States Eric was, in some ways, living in a different country than Kim in Oklahoma. Minnesota was one of the very few states that ranked among the top twenty nations in the world in education outcomes. Minnesota did not make it into the top tier with Finland or Korea, but in math, the state’s teenagers performed about as well as teenagers in Australia and Germany.

Even by those standards, Eric had attended a particularly high-powered high school. Newsweek regularly ranked Minnetonka High School among the top high schools in America. The place had four gymnasiums and a hockey rink and looked more like a small college than a high school.

Eric had opted to join the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme, an intense track within the school that was benchmarked to international standards. He had several teachers who were legendary in Minnetonka...On paper, anyway, Eric was going from one of the smartest states in the United States to one of the smartest countries in the world.
Again, Ripley paints a flattering portrait of Minnesota. Or does she? Let’s fill in some of the background:

On the 2011 TIMSS, the United States outscored both Australia and Germany by statistically significant margins in Grade 4 math. The U.S. outscored Australia in Grade 8 math, though only by a small margin; Germany didn’t take part in the Grade 8 testing.

What about Minnesota? On the Grade 8 level, Minnesota took part in the 2011 TIMSS as an independent entity. Result?

Minnesota outscored Australia by a wide margin on both the math and science tests. But so what? On page 47, Ripley is restricting herself to PISA results, although her readers don’t know that. On that basis, she only says that Minnesota teens perform “about as well as teenagers in Australia and Germany.”

You can’t exactly call that false. But basic information is being withheld, as is the case all through this scattershot book.

In Grade 8 math, Minnesota outscored Australia by a wide margin on the 2011 TIMSS! The United States outscored Australia and Germany, in the manner described, on that same “major test.” But alas! These are the types of facts which keep disappearing from Ripley’s book, due to her general avoidance of TIMSS scores.

In truth, Ripley’s book is a chaotic mess in its use of international test scores. She’s very good at human interest writing, appallingly weak when it comes to the most basic uses of test scores.

At any rate, Ripley consistently portrays Minnesota as one of “the smartest states.” (Forgive the childish language. It’s meant to draw you in, slow learner that you are.) Only Massachusetts ranks with Minnesota in math, she says on page 72.

That’s a very shaky claim. In truth, we’d have to say it’s just false. In the next few days, we’ll flesh out the fuller picture.

Simply put, Massachusetts isn’t the only state which ranks with Minnesota in the teaching of math. But Ripley doesn’t seem to know squat about the ways to analyze test scores.

What else is new? Because we live in a post-journalistic culture, a highly amateurish book is being lavishly praised. This is very much the way our “journalistic” world works.

MALALA, MATTHEWS AND MADDOW: When the Great Souls present!


Part 1—Not against anyone: This one time, we’ll let you ask us about our travels!

We went to the Hudson Valley this weekend, as we periodically do, to visit our older friend who is in nursing home care. He happens to be the late Ed Lauter’s brother-in-law.

We knew that one of Ed’s sisters would be drawn to the person, and to the story, of Malala Yousafzai, the “education activist” who was shot by the Taliban last year when she was barely 15.

For that reason, we took along Parade magazine’s cover story about Malala. By happenstance, the New York Times ran en op-ed column this Saturday which helped trace this young person’s spiritual lineage.

Historian William Dalrymple’s piece recounted a surprising fact. Despite stereotypes which now obtain, Malala’s Pashtun society includes strong traditions of Gandhian nonviolent resistance and of strong female leadership.

According to Dalrymple, this heritage encompasses the 19th century teenager for whom Malala was named:
DALRYMPLE (10/26/13): Malala’s extraordinary bravery and commitment to peace and the education of women is indeed inspiring. But there is something disturbing about the outpouring of praise: the implication that Malala is a lone voice, almost a freak event in Pashtun society, which spans the border areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan and is usually perceived as ultraconservative and super-patriarchal.

Few understand the degree to which the stereotypes that bedevil the region—images of terrorist hide-outs and tribal blood feuds, religious fanatics and the oppression of women—are, if not wholly misleading, then at least only one side of a complex society that was, for many years, a center of Gandhian nonviolent resistance against British rule, and remains home to ancient traditions of mystic poetry, Sufi music and strong female leaders.

While writing a history of the first Western colonial intrusion into the region, I heard many stories about the woman Malala Yousafzai is named after: Malalai of Maiwand. For most Pashtuns, the name conjures up not a brave teenage supporter of education, but an equally brave teenage heroine who turned the tide of a crucial battle during the second Anglo-Afghan war.
We strongly recommend Dalrymple’s column. World culture is varied and powerful!

We thought Dalrymple’s column was thrilling. Then, on YouTube, with our friend, we played the tape of Malala’s speech at the United Nations, this past July, on the day she turned sixteen.

We had never watched the full tape, although we were struck by the excerpts we saw in real time. Thanks goodness for the inspiration of friends! That may be the most unusual tape we have ever watched, the most unusual public performance.

On the day she turned 16, this very unusual person began her address to a UN Youth Assembly like this:
MALALA (7/12/13): In the name of God, the most beneficent, the most merciful.

Honorable UN Secretary General Mr. Ban Ki-moon; respected president, General Assembly, Vuk Jeremic; honorable UN envoy for global education Mr. Gordon Brown;

Respected elders, and my dear brothers and sisters:

Assalamu alaikum.

SOME IN AUDIENCE: Assalamu alaikum.

MALALA: Thank you.
Later, we’ll suggest that you listen to that first exchange. But that’s what this very unusual person was doing on the day when we American kids may get our first driver’s license.

This morning, we’ll suggest that you do yourself a favor by watching that very unusual 17-minute tape.

“Thank you to the children whose innocent words encouraged me,” Malala said, referring to her physical recovery over the past year. “Thank you to my elders, whose prayers strengthened me.

“I would like to thank my nurses, doctors and the staff of the hospitals in Pakistan and the UK and the UAE government, who have helped me to get better and recover my strength.”

The United Nations had declared this day “Malala Day.” The honoree expanded the honor:

“Dear brothers and sisters, do remember one thing. Malala Day is not my day...There are hundreds of human rights activists and social workers who are not only speaking for their rights, but who are struggling to achieve their goal of peace, education and equality.

“Thousands of people have been killed by the terrorists, and millions have been injured. I am just one of them.”

To our ear, and this speech must be heard, one of the most remarkable moments came when Malala described the way the Taliban failed in their attempt to silence her and her friends, two of whom were also shot in the attempt to kill her.

“They thought that the bullet would silence us, but they failed,” she said. “And out of that silence came thousands of voices.

"The terrorists thought they would change my aims and stop my ambitions. But nothing changed in my life except this:

“Weakness, fear and hopelessness died. Strength, power and courage was born.”

You have to hear the way that last declaration was rendered.

Already, this was perhaps the most unusual tape we had ever watched. But we were most struck by the passage in which Malala described her moral lineage, after making a statement to which we direct your attention:
MALALA: Dear sisters and brothers! I am not against anyone.

Neither am I here to speak in terms of personal revenge against the Taliban, or any other terrorist group.

I am here to speak for the right of education for every child. I want education for the sons and daughters of the Taliban and all the terrorists and extremists.

I do not even hate the Talib who shot me. Even if there was a gun in my hand and he was standing in front of me, I would not shoot him.

This is the compassion I have learned from Mohamed, the prophet of mercy, Jesus Christ and Lord Buddha.

This is the legacy of change I have inherited from Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Mohammed Ali Jinnah.

This is the philosophy of nonviolence that I have learned from Gandhiji, Bacha Khan and Mother Teresa.

And this is the forgiveness that I have learned from my father and from my mother.

This is what my soul is telling me: be peaceful and love everyone.

Dear sisters and brothers! We realize the importance of light when we see darkness...
I am not against anyone, Malala said, and the emphasis was hers. She then said that she had learned her values from a list of history’s Great Souls.

The Great Souls don’t appear every day. (By that, we mean the people who can perform the duties of the Great Soul on the world stage.)

Is it possible that this extremely unusual person is the latest of the Great Souls? It may seem strange to ask such a question about someone so young. But when the Great Souls appear, they tend to present at an early age.

By tradition, Jesus amazed the elders when he was only 12. In Stride Toward Freedom, Dr. King almost apologizes for the tardiness of his own search.

“Not until I entered Crozer Theological Seminary in 1948, however, did I begin a serious intellectual quest for a method to eliminate social evil,” Dr. King ruefully says.

Dr. King was 19 when he entered Crozer. Meanwhile, in this other YouTube tape, you can see Nelson Mandela describing the way he and his comrades “identified with” Anne Frank when they read her book in prison.

(“What we took away from that is the infinite ability of the human spirit, which expresses itself in different ways in different situations.”)

Did Mandela really identify with Anne Frank? In that statement, Mandela is saying that he saw himself in a book which was written, then rewritten, when Anne Frank was 14 years old.

Who will Malala turn out to be? We have no idea. But we were thrilled by the brilliant gumption with which she announced and accepted her moral and ethical lineage. And we were struck by her statement that she isn’t “against” anyone.

We’ll admit it! It made us think of the moral shortfall we see at Salon and on The One True Liberal Channel. On that channel, we are instructed, night after night, in the ways to be against others.

Explicitly, Malala rejected that approach. Why would somebody do that?

Tomorrow: Being against

Concerning that first exchange: Listen to that first exchange between this young person and her audience.

“Assalamu alaikum,” some in the audience say. “Thank you,” Malala replies.

Have you ever heard the sound of one hand clapping? Translating to our own cultural context:

Given the degraded norms of our public discourse, have you ever heard a public statement which was completely devoid of pomposity and self-reference?

That’s what we hear in that extremely quiet, “Thank you.” That’s the sound you will never hear from Lawrence, Chris Matthews or even from Rachel as you’re instructed, night after night, in the multitudinous ways to be against.

The greatest achievers have rejected that stance. Why would we want to adopt it?

Why do baseball games take so long?


Full service returns tomorrow: Why do baseball games take so long?

Last week, the New York Times reported on the topic. As we return to our sprawling campus from a brief trip to the Hudson Valley, we thought you might want to see what the World Series was like in 1963.

Fifty years ago this month, the Dodgers swept the Yankees. Here are the scores, with the length of time of each game:

October 2, 1963: Dodgers 5, Yankees 2. Length of game: 2:10
October 3, 1963: Dodgers 4, Yankees 1. Length of game: 2:13
October 5, 1963: Dodgers 1, Yankees 0. Length of game: 2:05
October 6, 1963: Dodgers 2, Yankees 1. Length of game: 1:50

They were all day games, played in early October.

In 1956, Don Larsen's perfect game ran 2:06. In those days, you could watch an entire World Series game, then still have time to go outside and jump in a big pile of leaves.

Today, a 1-0 game may take almost four hours. In part, it's because of the endless pitching changes.

Back then, nobody bothered. In that four-game 1963 sweep, the Dodgers' bullpen pitched exactly one-third of an inning.

To consult the leading authority on that series, just click here. Key words:

Koufax and Drysdale.

Tom Friedman, taking dictation from experts!


Direct from Shanghai, an innocent abroad: Tom Friedman isn’t an expert on schools. But when has that ever stopped anyone?

Last Wednesday, in the New York Times, Friedman wrote a column about his visit to a public elementary school in Shanghai. Because of its extremely high scores on the 2009 PISA, Shanghai has become the new Finland—the place to which the journalists go on junket, hoping to find The Secret to high-scoring schools.

That was Friedman’s headline: The Shanghai Secret. For decades, writers like Friedman have been revealing The Secret which explains the latest educational miracle tale. Rather, they’ve been sharing The Secret as told to them by our education experts.

Friedman traveled to Shanghai with Wendy Kopp, a major figure in education and, in our own view, a bit of an embellisher. How savvy are major journalists when they go on these public school junkets?

Not especially savvy. First example:

When they arrived in Shanghai, Friedman and Kopp constituted a major international delegation. At one point, Friedman observed a third grade English class at Qiangwei Primary School. We note one of his observations:
FRIEDMAN (10/24/13): Teng Jiao, 26, an English teacher here, said school begins at 8:35 a.m. and runs to 4:30 p.m., during which he typically teaches three 35-minute lessons. I sat in on one third-grade English class. The English lesson was meticulously planned, with no time wasted.
Did you follow that? Friedman visited this Shanghai primary school as part of a major delegation. When he observed one class, he noted, with an air of surprise, that the lesson had been well planned!

As noted, Shanghai produced extremely high results on the 2009 PISA. No one seems to doubt that the results are real, although Shanghai is a special case within China’s educational system (see link below).

Given his international status, there was no chance that Friedman would observe a class which hadn’t been extremely well planned. But Friedman, an innocent abroad, didn’t reflect on this obvious fact in his column. Instead, he played it straight, gaping at the preparation and the skillful use of time.

But then, there were a lot of things Friedman didn’t seem to notice as he produced his column. This cluelessness is often observed when journalists cast themselves the role of innocent abroad.

What else is odd in Friedman’s column? Below, you see the longer excerpt from which the previous passage was drawn.
Friedman is discussing the brilliant way this Shanghai school executes the basics. But in the highlighted passage, do Friedman’s numbers make sense?
FRIEDMAN: Take teacher development. Shen Jun, Qiangwei’s principal, who has overseen its transformation in a decade from a low-performing to a high-performing school...says her teachers spend about 70 percent of each week teaching and 30 percent developing teaching skills and lesson planning. That is far higher than in a typical American school.

Teng Jiao, 26, an English teacher here, said school begins at 8:35 a.m. and runs to 4:30 p.m., during which he typically teaches three 35-minute lessons. I sat in on one third-grade English class. The English lesson was meticulously planned, with no time wasted. The rest of his day, he said, is spent on lesson planning, training online or with his team, having other teachers watch his class and tell him how to improve and observing the classrooms of master teachers.
According to Friedman, Teng Jiao spends 105 minutes teaching, out of an eight-hour school day. That doesn’t exactly seem to make sense—and it seems to contradict the principal’s statement one paragraph earlier, in which teachers are said to be in the classroom 70 percent of each day.

In comments, many readers of Friedman's column noticed this puzzle. They marveled at the teacher/student ratio Friedman recorded elsewhere. But as he typed the latest educational miracle column, Friedman didn’t seem to notice these things. Nor does he seem to realize that a serious journalist shouldn’t accept undocumented claims about a school’s “transformation in a decade.”

Should a journalist assume the truth in a principal’s claim about the number of students who are children of poorly educated migrant workers? Actually, no! He shouldn’t assume that either!

No one seems to doubt that Shanghai’s test scores are basically real. But a serious journalist wouldn’t take those localized miracle claims at face value. Meanwhile, do you understand the highlighted statement? We’re not sure we do:
FRIEDMAN: I’ve traveled here with Wendy Kopp, the founder of Teach for America, and the leaders of the Teach for All programs modeled on Teach for America that are operating in 32 countries. We’re visiting some of the highest- and lowest-performing schools in China to try to uncover The Secret—how is it that Shanghai’s public secondary schools topped the world charts in the 2009 PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) exams that measure the ability of 15-year-olds in 65 countries to apply what they’ve learned in math, science and reading.
Does that highlighted statement mean that Friedman and Kopp ventured outside Shanghai? Did Friedman really visit some of China’s lowest-performing schools?

If so, Friedman doesn’t discuss what he saw in those schools, which would have been very different from what he saw in Shanghai. Indeed, he doesn’t discuss those schools at all.

Obviously, you can’t expect a journalist to answer all questions about a sweeping topic in an 800-word column. The problem is, Friedman almost seems to think he accomplished that task during his junket to Shanghai.

What is The Secret behind Shanghai’s high scores? In keeping with current tenets of ed reform chic, Friedman announces that there really isn’t a Secret. He then produces a list of four best practices which takes the place of The Secret. Did he notice something about his four-point list?
FRIEDMAN: After visiting Shanghai’s Qiangwei Primary School, with 754 students—grades one through five—and 59 teachers, I think I found The Secret:

There is no secret.

When you sit in on a class here and meet with the principal and teachers, what you find is a relentless focus on all the basics that we know make for high-performing schools but that are difficult to pull off consistently across an entire school system. These are: a deep commitment to teacher training, peer-to-peer learning and constant professional development, a deep involvement of parents in their children’s learning, an insistence by the school’s leadership on the highest standards and a culture that prizes education and respects teachers.
In that paragraph, Friedman lists four “basics” which are said to explain Shanghai’s success. He says “we know” that these four basics are the key to high-scoring schools.

Who is this “we?” Friedman doesn’t say. Sill and all, let's be fair:

In some sense, Friedman’s statement may even be true! It may be that those four basic best practices do explain Shanghai's apparent success. But did Friedman realize that two of those “basics” aren’t within the control of a public school? He shows no sign of having noticed this highly important fact.

Guess what? A public school or a public school system can’t create “a culture that prizes education and respects teachers.” Nor can a public school magically create “the deep involvement of parents.” Those may be two basic explanations for Shanghai’s apparent success. But Friedman rattles them off without seeming to see that he is describing a cultural difference between Shanghai and many parts of this country.

In fairness, Friedman does know that he has encountered some cultural differences. At one point, he alludes to a difference he observes in a particular circumstance.

But alas! It isn’t clear that Friedman knows what that cultural difference is! Can you name the cultural difference lodged in this anecdote?
FRIEDMAN: Teng said his job also includes “parent training.” Parents come to the school three to five times a semester to develop computer skills so they can better help their kids with homework and follow lessons online. Christina Bao, 29, who also teaches English, said she tries to chat either by phone or online with the parents of each student two or three times a week to keep them abreast of their child’s progress. “I will talk to them about what the students are doing at school.” She then alluded matter-of-factly to a big cultural difference here, “I tell them not to beat them if they are not doing well.”
Presumably, the cultural difference to which Friedman refers is the practice of “beating children.” A larger difference is described in that anecdote, though it isn’t clear that Friedman noticed.

Friedman isn’t an education specialist. What made him feel he knew so much, based on one quick trip to China?

Eventually, we discover his secret! Friedman believes the things he is told by “education experts.” Eventually, he cites one particular expert:
FRIEDMAN: Education experts will tell you that of all the things that go into improving a school, nothing—not class size, not technology, not length of the school day—pays off more than giving teachers the time for peer review and constructive feedback, exposure to the best teaching and time to deepen their knowledge of what they’re teaching.


In 2003, Shanghai had a very “average” school system, said Andreas Schleicher, who runs the PISA exams. “A decade later, it’s leading the world and has dramatically decreased variability between schools.” He, too, attributes this to the fact that, while in America a majority of a teacher’s time in school is spent teaching, in China’s best schools, a big chunk is spent learning from peers and personal development. As a result, he said, in places like Shanghai, “the system is good at attracting average people and getting enormous productivity out of them,” while also, “getting the best teachers in front of the most difficult classrooms.”
Earlier, Friedman told us that 70 percent of a Shanghai teacher’s day is spent in the classroom. Now, as he hurries to finish his column, he complains that a majority of a teacher’s time is spent that way over here!

Whatever! In the end, we learn this from that passage: Friedman believes (and repeats) whatever the experts tell him. In this case, one expert almost seem to be telling him that Shanghai made a miraculous gain in the last ten years due to teacher training techniques which turn “average people” into exceptional teachers.

Being an innocent, Friedman doesn’t know that he shouldn’t automatically believe the things Schleicher tells him. Schleicher is the crusader rabbit who invented the PISA, which everyone agrees to say is a test of critical thinking skills.

We assume the PISA is a useful test. Regarding Schleicher, we would be somewhat skeptical.

Along with the cult of Finland, the education world has developed a cult of Schleicher in the past decade. A serious journalist would be much more careful than Friedman with Schleicher’s all-knowing pronouncements.

A few years ago, Schleicher told Amanda Ripley that Finland’s (not so) miraculous rise was based on the way they only allow the most talented people to become teachers. Now, Schleicher seems to be telling Thomas L. Friedman that Shanghai’s (alleged) miraculous rise is based on the way they take average people and make them excellent teachers.

Each claim could be true, of course—but then, each claim could be false. Friedman doesn’t seem to know that he shouldn’t be taking dictation from Schleicher.

Schleicher is a well-known expert. He has probably given TED talks! To Friedman, this can only mean one thing. Serving as the latest educational innocent abroad, he assumes he should be writing down the things this expert has told him.

Over the past forty years, the education experts have often been wrong. They have often been amazingly clueless. One example:

A lot of cheating was transpiring on this country’s standardized tests. We discussed this problem from the early 1970s on.

The education experts completely missed it. Forty years later, USA Today finally clued them in with their report on the cheating surrounding Michelle Rhee, whom the experts loved.

The experts’ track record is very poor. Friedman shows no sign of knowing. He is writing down what they said to an innocent abroad.

Background on Shanghai: Please note—Shanghai is producing very high test scores. So is South Korea; so is Singapore. That isn't the issue here.

For background on Shanghai’s special status within the Chinese system, see Tom Loveless’s recent piece for Brookings. Loveless is one of those rare education experts:

Good lord! He doesn't repeat what everybody else just said! In the world of education experts, is such conduct allowed?

The worst news report we saw last week!


Krugman explains where it came from: The worst news report we saw last week appeared in the New York Times.

We refer to the featured news report in Thursday’s National section. In the hard-copy New York Times, the news report appeared beneath these headlines:

Better News In New Study That Assesses U.S. Students
Majority Outperform International Average

Those headlines were strange on their own. It has been known since December that American students outperformed the international average on both tests in question. (The tests in Grade 8 science and math on the 2011 TIMSS.)

That said, the report which ran beneath those headlines was a jumbled, incompetent mess. It was written by Motoko Rich, a New York Times education reporter who graduated summa cum laude from Yale in the early 1990s.

Rich’s piece is such a mess that we’ll plan to examine it in detail next week. But how could a person with that pedigree compose such a jumbled mess?

Paul Krugman may have answered that question in Friday’s column! He was talking about Alan Greenspan’s bungled economic predictions when he did.

A group of ranking public figures keep predicting economic doom, Krugman noted. Their predictions keep turning out to be wrong, but journalists agree not to notice.

In the passage shown below, Krugman comments on a failed prediction by Greenspan. In the first passage we highlight, Krugman explains the way our current “journalistic” system works:
KRUGMAN (10/24/13): As I’ve already suggested, there are two remarkable things about this kind of doomsaying. One is that the doomsayers haven’t rethought their premises despite being wrong again and again—perhaps because the news media continue to treat them with immense respect...

It’s actually awesome, in a way, to realize how long cries of looming disaster have filled our airwaves and op-ed pages. For example, I just reread an op-ed article by Alan Greenspan in The Wall Street Journal, warning that our budget deficit will lead to soaring inflation and interest rates. What about the reality of low inflation and low rates? That, he declares in the article, is “regrettable, because it is fostering a sense of complacency.”

It’s curious how readily people who normally revere the wisdom of markets declare the markets all wrong when they fail to panic the way they’re supposed to. But the really striking thing at this point is the date: Mr. Greenspan’s article was published in June 2010, almost three and a half years ago—and both inflation and interest rates remain low.

So has the ex-Maestro reconsidered his views after having been so wrong for so long? Not a bit. His new (and pretty bad) book declares that “the bias toward unconstrained deficit spending is our top domestic economic problem.”
Greenspan’s gloomy prediction turned out to be wrong—but he just keeps making similar predictions! And then you see that highlighted statement, in which Krugman describes the way our “journalists” react to such events:

Despite the fact that Greenspan and the other doomsayers are “wrong again and again,” “the news media continue to treat them with immense respect.”

Krugman names other famous doomsayers who have made failed predictions. He doesn’t name any journalists.

That said, Krugman’s column explains the way our world actually works:
The way our “journalistic” world works
High-ranking establishment figures issue a set of Official Approved Ideas and Beliefs. No matter how many times their claims turn out to be wrong, the press corps agrees not to notice.

The elite figures advancing these claims are treated as sacred beings. Journalists refuse to note their endless mistakes and misstatements.
What’s described isn’t journalism, of course. But it is the way our “journalistic” world works.

As with economics, so with public schools! Doomsayers walk the land, issuing morbid proclamations. In the case of the public schools, their cries are often inaccurate.

But our nation’s “journalists” know they mustn’t notice that fact. The doomsayers are sacred beings! Their gloomy claims carry the force of law.

On Thursday, a summa cum laude Yale graduate wrote a puzzling, jumbled report. How did she produce such a mess?

We can’t really answer that question. Is it possible that Krugman’s column has given us part of our answer?

Still coming: Friedman in Shanghai