FRIDAY, JUNE 6, 2014

Part 5—A tale of at least two cities: On balance, we weren’t enthralled by The Atlantic’s performance.

Last month, the famous American publication featured a 10,000-word report called “Segregation Now...”

Pseudo-liberal hearts were moved. For several major reasons, we were less than enthralled.

Don’t get us wrong! In her lengthy report, Nikole Hannah-Jones told a fascinating story about the historical treatment of race within the Tuscaloosa City Schools.

She focused on the city’s high schools. She took us all the way back to pre-Brown days, when Tuscaloosa ran one high school for its white kids and a second high school for their black counterparts.

In 1979, under the aegis of federal courts, the city finally took a completely different direction. In this passage, Hannah-Jones described the creation of Central High School, a single, city-wide high school which all students attended:
HANNAH-JONES (4/16/14): In the fall of 1979, Central High School opened to serve all public-high-school students in the district—no matter their race, no matter whether they lived in the city’s public-housing projects or in one of the mansions along the meandering Black Warrior River. The mega-school, a creative solution to a complex problem, resulted from many hours of argument and negotiation in [Judge Frank] McFadden’s chambers. It was spread across two campuses—ninth- and 10th-graders at the former black high school, now called Central West; 11th- and 12th-graders at the old white high school, called Central East. (The judge’s order also created three single-grade middle schools.)

All traces of the segregated system, from the mascots to the school colors of the two former schools, were discarded. All of Tuscaloosa’s public-high-school students would now unite under the red-and-white banner of the Falcons. As one of the biggest schools in the state, Central would offer classes in subjects ranging from Latin to forensics.
All traces of the segregated system were discarded? We'll guess that the gaps were still there.

In theory, this turn to a single all-city school was a great idea. In practice, the large number of campuses this arrangement involved made for a somewhat clumsy solution.

That doesn’t mean that this arrangement couldn’t have worked. As she continued, Hannah-Jones painted a glorious picture of the new Central High—and she voiced an objection:
HANNAH-JONES (continuing directly): Over the years, Central racked up debate-team championships. Its math team dominated at state competitions. The cheerleaders tumbled their way to nationals, and the Falcons football team trounced local competitors so badly, some refused to play against it. Central students were regularly named National Merit Scholars. In 2001, the state found Central’s projected dropout rate to be less than half Alabama’s average.

“Central and its resources could reach any child,” said Robert Coates, a former principal of the school.

The school was hardly perfect. Black students were disproportionately funneled into vocational classes, and white students into honors classes. Some parents complained that competitive opportunities were limited to just the very best students and athletes because the school, at 2,300 students, was so large. And the white flight that had begun when the courts first ordered the district to desegregate continued, slowly, after the formation of the mega-school. But despite these challenges, large numbers of black students studied the same robust curriculum as white students, and students of both races mixed peacefully and thrived.
Welcome to Shangri-la! Portraits like these make us liberals feel good. But how accurate is this portrayal? To what extent did “large numbers of black students” actually “thrive” as they studied that “robust curriculum” in this earlier high school?

In the end, there’s no real way to answer that question. There are no data describing the academic performance of Tuscaloosa’s various kids during the era in question.

But make no mistake—Hannah-Jones is telling a tale of at least two cities in her portrait of the school which could reach any child as its math team ruled the state, as it racked up those Merit Scholarships.

According to Hannah-Jones, some of the kids who attended that version of Central High came from “the mansions along the meandering Black Warrior River.” Other kids at that earlier version of Central “lived in the city’s public-housing projects.”

Academically, those kids were almost surely living in two different cities. Much of American history had been devoted to creating the gaps which almost surely defined that state of affairs.

What did the various “achievement gaps” look like in that era’s Tuscaloosa? No data exist to answer that question. But those gaps are large in Alabama today, as they are around the nation, although the gaps are getting smaller in both the nation and the state.

How large are the gaps in today’s Alabama? In Grade 8 math, Alabama’s black students have recorded substantial score gains in the past two decades, but so have the state’s white students.

For that reason, the various gaps were still large on last year’s NAEP math tests. Despite the score gains of recent decades, these were daunting statistics:
Average scores, Grade 8 math
Alabama, 2013 NAEP

All students: 269.19

Higher-income students: 286.71
Lower-income students: 255.64

White students: 279.57
Black students: 250.16

Higher-income white students: 288.18
Lower-income white students: 266.62
Higher-income black students: 272.98
Lower-income black students: 245.94
For the record, Alabama’s higher-income black students scored close to their national peers last year. In all other categories, Alabama’s average scores trailed those of the the nation by substantial amounts.

(To give you a general sense of those gaps, the average score for all students nationwide was 283.62. Alabama trailed the nation by more than thirteen points.)

Let’s return to the Tuscaloosa of 1979. Better yet, let’s imagine that Tuscaloosa returned to its earlier policy this year—that all the city’s various students attended one large high school.

In many ways, that would presumably be a good thing. But students would be attending that school from at least two different cities.

Higher-income white students would be coming from their homes across the Black Warrior River. Lower-income black students would be coming from their homes in the public housing projects in the city’s West End.

If Tuscaloosa is like Alabama as a whole, a gap of more than 40 points separated those groups in Grade 8 math last year. According to a very rough rule of thumb, the one group, on average, exceeded the other by four academic years.

Hannah-Jones rhapsodized about the way Tuscaloosa’s kids all attended one high school in an earlier era. She then offered an insinuation about the way that school’s black kids were “disproportionately funneled” away from honors classes.

It’s easy for liberals to play it that way. It makes us pseudo-liberals feel good.

It’s safe and it’s easy; journalistically, though, it’s quite slick. In our view, an approach like that is also unhelpful, uncaring.

In our view, it does a disservice to the superlative kids who stand on the lower end of those punishing gaps, which are very real.

How do we make those gaps go away? How do we better serve superlative kids like D’Leisha Dent, who wants to achieve and to serve?

Thank you for asking those very good questions! In our view, Hannah-Jones largely finessed that very key point in a piece which ran 10,000 words.

When “Our month of the gaps” continues, we’ll tell you why we say that.

Over the past thirteen years: Over the past thirteen years, Grade 8 math scores have risen in Alabama, as they have around the nation. Some of the gaps are smaller.

Below, you see the average scores for the state’s white and black students. For each year, you see the average for white kids, the average for black kids, and the size of the gap:
Average scores, Grade 8 math
White kids, black kids: Alabama, 2013 NAEP

2013: 279.57, 250.16 (29.41)
2011: 280.13, 249.82 (30.31)
2009: 280.31, 248.01 (32.30)
2007: 278.20, 245.78 (32.42)
2005: 275.57, 239.97 (35.60)
2003: 274.70, 240.27 (34.43)
2000: 275.32, 239.89 (35.43)
Scores are higher for both groups. The size of the gap is down.

(We’re starting with the year 2000 because, for technical reasons, it’s the earliest year which permits a clean comparison with 2013. Score gains were also recorded in the 1990s.)


  1. From the US version of The Guardian:

    A major new shopping mall and housing development in New Jersey, which is controlled by the biggest corporate funders of Chris Christie’s official mansion, has been awarded a $223m public subsidy by the governor’s administration.

    Luxury Point, a vast retail, residential and entertainment complex to be built in Sayreville, was last month given one of the biggest corporate tax breaks handed out so far by the Republican governor's state authorities, which are facing a $2.7bn budget shortfall over the next year.

    The $223.3m, 10-year subsidy was awarded without fanfare to Sayreville Seaport Associates LP, a corporate partnership that owns the 440-acre development alongside the Raritan river, where construction on a shopping mall targeted at millennials is due to begin later this year.

    But a detailed proposal for the $2bn venture discloses that the project is majority-owned by Prudential, the New Jersey-based financial and insurance giant, which has in the past three years given more than $125,000 to the Republican Governors Association, which Christie chairs.

    The company is also the most generous corporate backer of a foundation that raises as much as $1m a year to maintain and restore Drumthwacket, Christie’s official mansion in Princeton, which the governor uses to host private dinners, receptions and other events. Prudential contributes at least $50,000 a year, securing it “diamond” status from the foundation.

    1. From Scotusblog re: congressional debate of a constitutional amendment to limited Citizens United & McCutcheon:

      Law professor Jamin Raskin – who, like McKissick, is also a state legislator – focused primarily on the amendment from the perspective of a constitutional law scholar. He described Citizens United as having “bulldozed” the wall that separated corporate and personal wealth from democratic politics; the proposed amendment is necessary, he argued, to rebuild that wall. And although the amendment was intended to respond to the Court’s decisions in McCutcheon and Citizens United, he warned that more changes to the campaign finance system could be afoot in the future: “we see tremendous momentum on the Court,” he said, “to strike down all campaign finance laws.” Raskin found “some hope” for campaign finance reform, however, in the Supreme Court’s 2009 decision in Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal Company, in which the Court – in an opinion by Justice Anthony Kennedy – held that a justice on West Virginia’s highest court should have recused himself from a case involving a coal company whose CEO had contributed large sums of money in support of the justice’s election

    2. I don't come to your home and switch the TV channel while you are watching. Please try to stay on topic.

    3. That was very polite of you.

    4. From schoolsmatter:

      Posted as a comment on "Ed. Groups Urge More Federal Spending for Common-Core Tests," at:
      More money to support the biggest boondoggle in the history of education?
      There is zero research supporting the value of on-line testing, and no plans to do even small scale studies. The amount of money on-line testing will cost will be staggering and will increase dramatically. Every student has to have access to an modern computer with up-to-date capacity, and just to keep up with changes, the computers will have to be replaced every three years and the entire infra-stucture might have to be altered or replaced. Moreover, we are increasing the amount of required testing far beyond NCLB levels, a move that also has no support in the research.
      All this at a time when budgets are strained, and there is little or no money for essentials, for things that have been consistently shown to help students.
      PS: One of the two groups pushing for more money for testing technology, CoSN, is itself financially supported by companies that are profiting from the increase in testing and technology in the schools: Pearson, Microsoft, Dell, (see: and, of course, The Gates Foundation (, a major funder of the common core.

      Forgive me Anonymous June 6, 2014 at 12:30 PM, but the pervasive influence of greed in every facet of our society is on topic.

  2. The assumption that placing black and white students into the same classes will cure gaps in performance by imposing a more challenging curriculum strikes me as similar to the suggestion that imposing higher standards will improve performance. Both views rely on the belief that expecting more of kids and expecting them to harder work will cause them to perform better.

    That is true to the extent that low performance is caused by low expectations or unchallenging work or loafing by kids or their teachers. When kids work harder they can and do achieve more, but what if they are already working hard and not succeeding with their less challenging work? The education literature is full of studies showing that kids do best when they work just slightly beyond their current level of competence -- Vygotsky's approach. Unless kids in largely black schools were topping out on their existing curriculum, it would be hard to argue it is too easy for them and that the solution is for them to work harder at a more challenging level. Is the stereotype of black people as lazy perhaps at work here?

    Yesterday someone posted this comment:

    "Hart and Risley still don't seem to address which is more important in the learning process, the sheer volume of vocabulary or the threshold of positive to negative feedback. Even if we solve one, what happens if we don't address the other? Forget press coverage on this one. Where do our schools of education stand on this?"

    First, schools of education don't take stands on specific research papers, although individual professors might. But this comment also pits a cognitive problem against a motivational one. The lack of words heard affects cognitive development (language acquisition). Hearing mostly disciplinary and negative feedback affects motivation (willingness to work hard). Both are needed for success in school but they are different aspects of functioning.

    If a child has the ability to perform but not the motivation, that child will be able to step up to the task once motivation is addressed and the child wants to work harder. If a child has the motivation but not the ability, the child will work harder and show improvement but only to the limit of that ability (which is not assumed to be inifinite in anybody).

    Language theorists hypothesize a critical period for language learning. Vocabulary expands dramatically between 2-4 yrs of age and that is when the exposure to words is needed. There are doubts about whether a child who misses out during that critical period can acquire language well later on because cognitive development parallels changes in brain neurophysiology that form these critical periods. So, it would be much more important and more damaging to have deficits in the number of words heard compared to hearing negative feedback.

    There is a literature on punishment. It suggests that punishment is most harmful when it is exclusively negative. If you mix punishing statements together with praise, there is not a damaging impact on the child or the relationship between parent and child. The kind of discipline used in lower SES homes does not necessarily produce low self-esteem. Again, this boils down to a suggestion that perhaps black kids do not perform well because they are not properly motivated, e.g., lazy. That is part of what is implied by the question posed in this comment, even if not consciously intended by its author.

    I think a better question is why we as a society are too lazy to address social problems that affect large numbers of our citizens by doing what is needed at the right time, instead of playing a blame game later on.

    1. Thanks for both halves of your comment. Much more informative than anything in this long series to date.

    2. The reason I thanked you is I asked the question yesterday and was called a troll for posing it.

      I do wish to clarify one thing.

      You say the question made suggestions or implications about black children even if I did not consciously intend them. I would say you consciously read negative things into a question which were not there.

      It will be interesting to see how Somerby treats this

    3. If behaviors resemble a stereotype, it shouldn't be taboo to allow that a trait persists in a particular population, not necessarily due to race itself, and then to figure out why it is. We already do it by replacing the term laziness with "lack of motivation" but both terms have their place. We should not be reluctant to acknowledge that laziness exists and is a character flaw that should be changed, or that lack of motivation sometimes is a function of something other than poor character. Sometimes not. The loss of the specter for a son of a father calling him lazy is a negative development. Black fathers are now absent or too guilt ridden during "visitation."

    4. You need to think about the difference between a trait and a behavior. A trait is a fixed aspect of someone's personality. A behavior is situational, context-dependent and changes. When you label someone lazy you do not permit them any opportunity to change. When you say that someone is unmotivated, you imply that they could do things differently with a different motivation.

    5. When you label someone lazy you permit and encourage them an opportunity to change their personalities. Laziness is not a fixed aspect of personality. The real difference is that "unmotivated" allows for and implies external excuses for a behavior and "lazy" assumes the person exhibiting the behavior chooses to do so. Some people are lazy, and would benefit greatly by a social acknowledgement that laziness exists.

    6. By definition, personality does not change.

  3. Back in the 70s Bill Cosby teamed with Education experts to create Sesame Street, to reach preschool disadvantaged kids and help them prepare for school, to close the gap. They didn't yet understand that language learning needs to be interactive, not passive. No one can learn language from TV, as shown in studies of acquisition of a second language and studies of hearing children of deaf parents exposed to TV. We need something comparable based on our improved understanding of what will work to reach preschoolers early enough to make a difference.

    1. Bill Cosby had absolutely nothing to do with the creation of Sesame Street.

      And the purpose of the show was NOT to reach disadvantaged kids and close the gap, but to reach ALL kids and prepare them for school.

    2. Oh, and by the way, Sesame Street was first conceived in 1966, and premiered on PBS on Nov. 19, 1969 --- NOT "the 70s."

      Amazing how many things a person can get wrong in one paragraph.

      "We need something comparable based on our improved understanding of what will work to reach preschoolers early enough to make a difference."

      Oh, you mean something like Head Start?

    3. Al Gore had nothing to do with the creation of the internet.

    4. Gore's wife, Tipper Gore, contributed a recipe for "In the Kitchen with Miss Piggy."

    5. Sesame Street appeared in 1969-1970 (the first season) and thereafter. It was set in an urban environment with minority actors to appeal to minority children. That was part of a deliberate strategy. I was wrong about Cosby's involvement with Sesame Street -- it was the Electric Company that he was involved with.

      Does Head Start teach parents how to talk to their children during the first three years of life, or is it another preschool program like those routinely attended by middle class kids? Most of the kids attending head start are 3+ years of age. Too late.

    6. Yes. Cosby "was involved with" Electric Company for all of the first of its six seasons.

      Yes, Sesame Street had minority characters in an urban setting. But among its characters was a frog and a seven-foot bird. I suppose that means there was a deliberate strategy to appeal to children who were amphibians and had yellow feathers.

      Sesame Street's "deliberate strategy" was to appeal to ALL children, and not to be exclusive. And over the course of the years, they added Hispanic characters and characters with disabilities as well.

      As for your comments about what Head Start doesn't do, this is why serious discussion of education is difficult. So many people are self-proclaimed "education experts" and they know THE answer.

      And THE answer is always an an extremely simple one -- "teach parents to talk to their kids more" -- to a very complex set of problems -- not just one problem.

      Well, my friend, here in flyover country, the public schools have a program called "Parents as Teachers." Hospitals provide information to parents about it while the mother is still in the hospital.

      It is designed to teach parents the enrichment activities for children to help develop their growing brains from age 0-2. I would be surprised if similar programs don't exist in all 50 states.

      But of course, you the self-proclaimed education expert who has THE answer, haven't heard of it.

      Bob of course would say that's because Salon has never written about it or Chris Matthews has never devoted a show to it.

      I would counter that, especially in this Information Age, it's because you've already got your mind made up that nothing like this exists, and you're too damned lazy to look it up.

    7. What is the matter with you?

    8. Bill Cosby's early work on television included glorifying our secret intelligence operation during the Vietnam era and making fun of overweight people. His hit show did little to stop the destruction of familit life and the slide to government dependency created by the liberal agenda.

    9. Yes, what a bad guy he was! He should have contented himself with being wealthy and ignored the black community and the needs of children. How awful that his show didn't fix everything that is wrong with the world and his opinions on Vietnam didn't suit your tastes. You are aware that comedians still make fat jokes? You didn't mention that he made jokes about parents hitting their kids. Is that an aspect of family life that you lament losing?

    10. I agree with you @ 2:13. Parents should hit their fat kids.
      Unless they are fat too.

  4. "Welcome to Shangri-la! Portraits like these make us liberals feel good. But how accurate is this portrayal?"

    Earth to Somerby! Exactly how is what Hannah-Jones wrote a portrayal of Shangi-La? Descriptions like yours may make you feel good. But they seem to have less and less to do with reality of the written work you review and usually rebuke, and they almost never have any basis for idiotic suggestions you make about liberals and their feelings.

    1. Obviously, the persistence of gaps between the average scores of black students and those of whites is an extremely important subject that deserves more attention than it gets. But that doesn't justify the level of vitriol that has been directed at someone who believes we are moving backwards in the commitment to desegregation in some places and believes this trend towards "re-segregation" is an extremely important public policy matter in its own right. Desegregation is a critical long-term process that is necessary apart from its direct effect on test scores for the simple reason that segregation for several hundred years, including the slavery years, was a grievous wrong to African-Americans. Brown v Board knocked out official segregation not because it would improve educational outcomes for blacks that could be established through test scores, but because it is inherently wrong. Especially to a black writer, reversal of the desegregation momentum would be a matter of great concern.

      As I said before, we can walk and chew gum at the same time. Even if walking is arguably more important than chewing gum, it is illegitimate to attack someone for doing a report -- one report -- on the other subject.

    2. the simple reason that segregation for several hundred years, including the slavery years, was a grievous wrong to African-Americans

      Not necessarily. Certainly government imposed segregation is a problem, but segregation itself is not inherently a problem, and theoretically could greatly have benefitted and continue to benefit blacks were it more prevalent.

  5. OMB (Cherry Picking Time in Bama with BOB)

    "We’re starting with the year 2000 because......." OTB

    Because, because, because
    Because of the wonderful things it does

    Follow the yellow brick road back to 1990. Oh, but it isn't comparable
    BOB warns. Well, yes, if NAEP can be trusted it is. It is if you want to compare the difference in gaps.

    BOB has selected a year, 2000, and a test score, 8th grade Math, which conveniently allows him to show test scores of Alabamians of both major racial groups have steadily crept up and the gap between them has steadily dwindled.

    If you go back to 1990

    1990 8th Grade Math Gap White-Black

    US 32.95
    Alabama 30.10

    1990 8th Grade Math Gap White-Black

    US 30.46
    Alabama 29.42

    To state this in BOBese: Scores are higher for both groups. The size of the gap is statistically identical.

    You know where the gap grows widest and is statistically significant between 2000 and 2013?

    Between higher income blacks and everyone else. including lower income blacks. This statistic favors the analysis put forth by Hannah-Jones. The resegregation of low income black students has been harmful.

    8th Grade Math Gaps Changes in Alabama

    2013 Lower Income White - Upper Income White 21
    2000 Lower Income White - Upper Income White 20

    2013 Upper Income Black - Upper Income White 25
    2000 Upper Income Black - Upper Income White 33

    2013 Upper Income Black - Lower Income White - 6
    2000 Upper Income Black - Lower Income White 11

    2013 Lower Income Black - Lower Income White 21
    2000 Lower Income Black - Lower Income White 26

    2013 Lower Income Black - Upper Income Black 27
    2000 Lower Income Black - Upper Income Black 15

    2013 Lower Income Black - Upper Income White 54
    2000 Lower Income Black - Upper Income White 51

    This whole exercise should demonstrate poor people in Alabama, regardless of color are getting left further behind.

    And playing with numbers is just that.


    1. The first statistics set should read:

      "If you go back to 1990

      1990 8th Grade Math Gap White-Black

      US 32.95
      Alabama 30.10

      2013 8th Grade Math Gap White-Black

      US 30.46
      Alabama 29.42"


  6. One thing that struck me, although others may have pointed it out too. Was that the average for black kids was much closer to the lower income average than it was to the higher income average.

    Using simple algebra I find that only 15,6% of the black kids were higher income whereas 84.4% were lower income. And 60% of the white students were higher income and 40% lower income.

  7. This article was pretty interesting, about the effects of mismatches between the teacher's communication style and what kids experience at home (see Ballenger's experiences toward the end of the article):

    Culturally Responsive Classroom Management: Awareness Into Action, by Carol Weinstein, Mary Curran, and Saundra Tomlinson-Clarke. Theory Into Practice, 2003.

  8. The streetlight effect is a type of observational bias where people only look for whatever they are searching by looking where it is easiest.
    That's what's happening here. Researchers and pundits don't know that thousands of individual things that affect a child's education. They focus on racial balance because that's easy to measure and report

  9. It doesn't matter to anyone but me, but Wikipedia says David Freedman apparently coined the phrase "streetlight effect." The late David Freedman was my graduate advisor.


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