At the Washington Post, they do it again!


Can’t get the simplest facts right: How broken is our intellectual culture?

This morning, the Washington Post has done it again!

In a bungled news report, Ovetta Wiggins discusses a very large DC-area school system. In the process, she and her unnamed editor make a ham-handed factual error concerning a basic statistic:
WIGGINS (4/22/14): The Prince George’s County school system has experienced a slight bump in enrollment for the first time in a decade, with nearly 2,000 more students attending the county’s schools this year than last.

County leaders have trumpeted the increase as a sign that the long-struggling school system, which has lost an average of 1,000 students a year during the past 10 years, is moving in the right direction. Increased enrollment means increased funding, and, they said, the additional resources will help as the district continues to turn itself around.

But along with the increased enrollment comes a sobering statistic: About 1,300—or 65 percent—of the new students in Prince George’s are eligible for free and reduced-price meals, a federal measure of poverty. The percentage of new students who are eligible for free and reduced-price meals is slightly higher than the overall average percentage of county students coming from poor families.
As we’ve noted many times, eligibility for free and reduced-price meals is not “a federal measure of poverty.”

Wiggins misstates this point all through her piece, creating an erroneous and unfortunate picture of Prince George’s County, a large, majority-black jurisdiction in DC’s Maryland suburbs.

(Prince George’s County is the nation’s 21st largest school district. For a full list, click here.)

How many times does it have to be said? Eligibility for free and reduced-price meals is not a measure of “poverty.”

Eligibility for the program extends to families whose incomes are roughly twice the federal poverty level. When education writers don’t know that, it’s like a sports writer who doesn’t know the number of outs in an inning.

(Answer: Three for each team.)

Eligibility for free and reduced-price meals is not a measure of “poverty.” But the Washington Post, which proselytizes about public school policy, routinely misstates this basic, bone-simple fact.

All through her piece, Wiggins misstates the number of kids in PG County who are “poor” or “in poverty.” Here is one such passage:
WIGGINS: Enrollment last year was down 14,000 students from a decade earlier, when in the 2003-2004 school year there were 137,000 students. As enrollment dropped over the years, the percentage of students from poor families increased. In 2008, 44 percent of the students qualified for free or reduced-price meals. That will be closer to 63 percent by the end of this year, estimates Joan Shorter, the system’s director of food and nutrition services.

Of the 125,000 students attending county schools as of Oct. 31, a little more than 61 percent come from poor families, Shorter said. A year earlier, the number was a little more than 59 percent.
It’s true that Prince Georges County is less affluent than other nearby subdivisions. But eligibility for free or reduced price is not a measure of poverty. Here are some basic facts:

According to NAEP testing data, 52 percent of U.S. fourth graders were eligible for free or reduced price lunch in 2011. (Click here, scroll to page 75.)

That doesn’t mean that 52 percent of U.S. fourth-graders were living in poverty.

The Prince George’s percentage is somewhat higher than that. That isn’t a measure of poverty either!

It’s amazing that the Washington Post keeps making this bone-simple error. But other publications make it too. In one area after another, that’s how our discourse works.

This report is wrong on its basic facts. It spreads a stereotypical, unhelpful picture of Prince George’s County.

In one area after another, that’s the way our discourse works. In the year 2014, we’re a very low-IQ people.

Our “press corps” is barely alive.


  1. She calls it "a" measure of poverty, which it certainly is, not "the" measure.

    You can unwad your panties now, Bob.

    Here's a clue for you, Bob. Free lunch eligibility are UP TO 130 percent of the federal poverty line. Reduced lunch eligibility is between 131 percent and 185 percent of the poverty line --- not TWICE federal poverty level.

    You can rest assured that every student who qualifies for free or reduced lunches is living in a low-income family, and many of them are certainly below the poverty level.

    Which renders this statement which you highlighted perfect accurate:

    "Of the 125,000 students attending county schools as of Oct. 31, a little more than 61 percent come from poor families."

    1. So as I understand it. you are saying teams get four outs per inning or comparing what sportswriters need to know to what education writers need to know is like comparing Mexican PISA scores to pizza in New Mexico?

    2. So as I understand it, you can't argue that Wiggins said it was "a" measure, not "the" measure, so you are going to make an ass out of yourself trying to turn this into an argument you think you can win.

      You also realize that every state in the union uses the school lunch data as part of its state funding formula, don't you?

    3. 11:55 is a douchebag.

      The reporter and editor are indeed making a basic mistake.

      True, and regrettable.

    4. A term like "poverty" becomes meaningless if it is regularly applied to people who are not poor. Someone at 101% of the poverty level is, by definition, not poor.

      @11:55 wants to use the word poor to designate people who don't have a lot of money. That would include closer to 99% of us, not 185% of the poverty level. If the poverty level is established at a specific point, people above it are officially not poor and those below it are officially poor.

      ALL of us are low income compared to the 1%.

      Why does this matter? Because labeling a county that is largely African American as "poor" is stigmatizing, feeds stereotypes about the poor, ignores the differences between underclass and middle class people, and invites others to lump all African Americans together in a self-fulfilling prophecy of low achievement. It encourages bigotry to treat statistics this way, especially when half the nation (predominantly white) qualifies for free or reduced lunches without being labeled poor because of it.

      Think about it -- how much harder would it be to recruit new teachers if the county is characterized as poor instead of middle class? How much harder to sell homes for a good market value (realtors know that home prices hinge on school quality) in a poor area? How much harder to recruit new businesses to locate in the county?

    5. "Someone at 101% of the poverty level is, by definition, not poor."

      By YOUR rather insensitive definition. By my definition, they are very much struggling, and that makes them poor.

      But you go ahead and worry if they are "officially" poor or not.

    6. Everyone struggles. That cannot be the measure of poverty.

  2. I think Bob Somerby should wirte a primer for education beat reporters.

    1. The first chapter could be "Building and Knocking Down Straw Men."

    2. Chapter Two: "Avoiding the Forest by Gazing at One Tree."

      Chapter Three: "Nit Picking for Fun and Blogging."

    3. WaPo misstates; trolls leap to its defense.

      Just another day at TDH.

    4. The blogger thinslices and misstates: troll whiners leap to his defense.

      Just another day at TDH.

    5. I agree with snarky 1:08.

      I prefer it when Somerby uses the Washington Post to bolster his case, like on the 77%. The Washington Post, always right when it is right with Bob!

      When trolls defend it it is bad. Very bad.

  3. I agree with the so-called trolls. Bob should just shut up and follow the herd. Reporters and liberal opinion leaders are doing super awesome.

    1. Good for you, too!

    2. I think it's absolutely if not utterly distasteful the way Somerby criticizes the elites. Sometimes I have to rush right home and bite my pillow for crying out loud!

    3. Was he critcizing elites? I thought he was humiliating a black reporter who was covering a predominately black school district because she got a bone simple statistic wrong.

    4. Even black reporters should be competent. Otherwise "soft bigotry of low expectations."

  4. Where the heck did Ovetta Wiggins go to college?

    1. Sounds like the kind of person who like shopping malls and wants others to pump her gas.

  5. OMB (Education Reporting Exercise for BOBfans)

    Do you agree with this statement?

    'How many times does it have to be said? Eligibility for free and reduced-price meals is not a measure of “poverty.”

    Eligibility for the program extends to families whose incomes are roughly twice the federal poverty level.

    Eligibility for free and reduced-price meals is not a measure of “poverty.”'

    (Pardon the repetition. BOBOBOB writes that way sometimes, often frequently.)

    Now do you agree with this statement?

    'To all intents and purposes, the interests of low-income kids never get mentioned on MSNBC.....

    When’s the last time you saw a discussion of low-income schools on MSNBC?

    (A bit of advice: Start your search at “never.” You’ll be pretty close.)'

    If you agree with both, please tell MSNBC how to identify the kids and schools they have been ignoring.


    1. And of course, the Wiggins' article concerned the difficulty that school district has in attracting the middle class students whose parents fled over the past decade for private schools.

    2. Exactly, KZ. How can you discuss the education of low-income children without using the only data schools collect to identify low-income children.

      After all, they could be a whopping 85 percent above the poverty line! Not low income at all!

      Face it. Somerby does not care about kids on the free and reduced lunch program.

  6. Here is how the National Center of Educational Statistics refers to the meaning of the Free and Reduced Lunch Program:

    "Mathematics Literacy: School Poverty Indicator: Table M9. Percentage distribution of U.S. 15-year-old public school students on PISA mathematics literacy scale, by proficiency level and percentage of students in enrolled schools eligible for free or reduced-price lunch"

    So here is the deal. Anonymous 11:55 is correct. While it does not coincide perfectly with the official poverty level, it is completely fair to say that the FRLP eligibility is "a" measure of poverty. That, in fact, is the way the NCES looks at it.

    A few considerations are (1) the great majority of participants in the entire program are eligible for free lunch; (2) the income level determining eligibility for free lunch is very close to the official poverty level; (3) the income level determining eligibility for reduced lunch (185% of the official poverty level) for a child from a family of four is less than two-thirds (66+%) of the median income for such a family ($23,000 a year less); the OECD uses 60% of median as one of its thresholds for determining the prevalence of poverty. There are also questions whether the reported level is pre- or post-tax and safety-net distributions.

    In other words, it is a far more complicated subject than TDH understands. If the NCES considers eligibility for the program "a" measure of poverty for analytical purposes, Olivia Wiggins does not deserve the level of contempt leveled at her here, and it's time for The Howler to refrain from one of his gloating diatribes every time he sees the program mentioned in the same sentence with the word "poverty." Its correlation with the deep poverty represented by the official figure is virtually 1:1 and it is the only measure we have to work with when dealing with educational performance data.

  7. Was this report bungled in good faith?