Part 1—Digby in pearls: Anthropologically speaking, are we so-called human beings really “the rational animal?”
Pretty much no, we are not. In yesterday’s prelude to this series, we discussed the American public’s extremely low level of political information. At the most, only forty percent of American adults actually know the answers to these basic questions:
Which political party has a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives?Something less than forty percent actually know who holds those majorities! On balance, we the people are deeply uninformed about our political system.
Which political party has a majority in the U.S. Senate?
That said, when we look at the way our press corps functions, we can’t really blame the public for turning away from our discourse.
Consider this report by Reid Wilson. It appeared in the high-profile Outlook section of Sunday’s Washington Post.
Wilson’s piece ran beneath this headline: “Best state: Massachusetts, for its schools”
Within his piece, Wilson presented a chart which bore this title: “Top 10 states for education.” (The chart doesn’t appear on-line.)
Wilson listed the following states. To support his claim that they're the top ten, he included proficiency rates achieved by students in these states on two of last year’s NAEP tests:
Top 10 states for educationAre those the top ten states for education, judging from NAEP scores?
2. New Jersey
3. New Hampshire
6. North Dakota
Groaningly, no. No, they pretty much aren’t.
Can we talk? Several states appear on that list for a blindingly obvious reason—their student populations are very heavily white. But uh-oh! When you look at the performance of white students in those states, you see very ordinary achievement on the NAEP—ordinary at best.
Is North Dakota our sixth top state? This is where North Dakota’s white students ranked among the 50 states on the 2013 NAEP:
Ranking among the fifty statesDoes North Dakota look like our sixth top state? Meanwhile, these are the rankings achieved by white students in Iowa:
North Dakota, white students, 2013 NAEP
Grade 4 reading: 34th out of 50 states
Grade 4 math: 24th
Grade 8 reading: 42nd
Grade 8 math: 18th
Ranking among the fifty statesDoes Iowa look like one of our top ten states?
Iowa, white students, 2013 NAEP
Grade 4 reading: 35th out of 50 states
Grade 4 math: 27th
Grade 8 reading: 37th
Grade 8 math: 39th
It has now been fifty years since mainstream news organs began debating how we might improve the outcomes in our “inner-city schools.” It’s stunning to think that, fifty years later, the Washington Post is still producing work of this type—work which shouts its journalistic incompetence to the skies.
In fairness, Wilson isn’t an education reporter. But the Post employs education reporters; presumably, it still employs some editors. But so what? Fifty years later, this helpless, pitiful “journalistic” giant seems to lack the most basic skills when it comes to discussing our schools.
It’s hard to know how a major newspaper could be so profoundly incompetent. We’ll ponder that question all week, looking at work which is being performed by Slate, by Salon, by MSNBC.
That said, this type of work is very much par for the course at the Post. By the way—near the end of his piece, Wilson sniffs about the nation’s various regions:
WILSON: Eastern Seaboard states perform best in the Education Week rankings. New Jersey, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Vermont, Maryland and Virginia join Massachusetts in the top 10, along with Minnesota, North Dakota and Iowa. Three of the bottom five states—Arizona, New Mexico and Nevada—are in the Southwest.By any measure, states like Massachusetts and New Jersey seem to be running our most successful public schools. (Maryland may have pulled a bit of a scam on the 2013 NAEP.) It’s also true that those southwestern states tend to perform rather poorly.
Still, everyone knows why those states might end up in the bottom five—their student populations are heavily Hispanic. As you can see in the data below, Arizona’s white kids outranked their counterparts in Iowa on all four NAEP measures last year. They outranked their peers in North Dakota on three of the four measures:
Ranking among the fifty statesCompare those rankings to those achieved by white students in Iowa. And yet, according to Wilson, Iowa is one of the top ten states. Pitiful Arizona, down in the Southwest, is in the bottom five.
Arizona, white students, 2013 NAEP
Grade 4 reading: 28th out of 50 states
Grade 4 math: 17th
Grade 8 reading: 35th
Grade 8 math: 20th
Do the gods on Olympus still keep track of our human folly? We’ll take a guess—by now, even they are averting their gaze from the type of work which is being done all over this nation’s “press corps.”
Wilson seems completely clueless about education statistics. No editor at the mighty Post saved him from this mess.
But all around the national press, work like this is constantly spewed, concerning a wise array of topics. And then, we have the intellectual disintegration of the nation’s “liberals.”
Last week, Heather Parton, clutching her pearls, fell back on her fainting couch. In our view, some of what she wrote in this piece is heinous, almost obscene.
We'll suggest you start with the headline. But this sort of thing is par for the course at the revised Salon.
Is there any possible way this sort of thing can lead to good societal outcomes? Plainly, Aristotle made a very large error all those years ago.
Tomorrow: Straight out of the pre-rational
To review all state rankings: Through use of this marvelous data tool, you can quickly review all state rankings for the 2013 NAEP. You can disaggregate the scores for the states. If you simple click on “Scale Score,” it quickly lists the state scores in order from best to worst.
The National Center for Education Statistics present a remarkable wealth of data. Anthropologically speaking, they have never figured out how to make “journalists” use them.