Part 3—The corps buys a bogus old tale: On August 25, two professors at Penn—it’s an Ivy League school!—released an important new study.
On the one hand, the study detailed an important state of affairs—an important state of affairs which has long been well known.
On the other hand, the study also seemed to advance a theme which was familiar and tribally thrilling, but was also bogus. Result?
All over the press corps, at major news orgs, American journalists rushed to pimp this familiar, well-memorized tale—a familiar old tale which was pleasing but false.
Nothing will turn on this bungled study, or on the hapless journalism which followed. That said, the episode lets us marvel at the incompetence of the domestic American press corps—more precisely, the incompetence of figures in the press who write about black kids in public schools.
Black kids seem to be doing much better in reading and math. Why is it that we never hear this important fact reported, analyzed or discussed?
In part, it’s because of the gross incompetence of the nation’s education reporters. In part, it’s because of a second obvious fact—nobody cares about black kids!
Quite plainly, nobody care!
In the current episode, let’s start with the Penn professors, who somehow managed to produce one of the worst studies we’ve ever seen.
Penn distributed the press release for the study on Monday, August 25. Two days later, Professor Harper spoke with Frank Stasio of NPR.
For many years, Stasio was a familiar voice on the national program, All Things Considered. Today, he hosts a program, The State of Things, for North Carolina Public Radio.
In his new study, Professor Harper had compiled suspension rates for black kids in our public schools—but he had restricted himself to thirteen Southern states. When Stasio asked him why that was, he received a peculiar reply:
STASIO (8/27/15): You looked at suspension rates of black students across the country, and found— You were focusing on the South. Why was that?He got suspended from a public school in the South, so this was personal for him! We wonder if the poobahs at Penn think that’s an appropiate statement of purpose.
HARPER: We focused on the South because my co-author and I, in looking at the national statistics on black student suspensions, we discovered that 1.2 million black students were suspended from public schools nationally, which in and of itself is a bit of a crisis. But when we got even further into our analyses, we discovered that 55 percent of those suspensions occurred in just thirteen states. And they were in the South.
I’m a Georgia native, and I went to public schools, and was once suspended from a public school that I attended. So, you know, this has both academic and personal implications for me.
Whatever! Professor Harper’s statement seemed fairly clear—or was it? It sounded like he was saying that he and his co-author had “discovered” an unusually high rate of suspensions in those thirteen Southern states.
“We discovered that 55 percent of those suspensions [of black students] occurred in just thirteen states,” the Ivy League professor said. “And they were in the South.”
It sounded like the professor was saying that black kids get suspended at higher rates in the South than in other parts of the country! It sounded that way, but please parse closely! In fact, Harper didn’t explicitly make that claim that in that stirring remark.
Two days earlier, in the press release, the assertion seemed clearer. Even here, the language was somewhat muddy. But the claim seemed much more clear:
PENN PRESS RELEASE (8/25/15): In schools across the United States, Black students are punished more severely than their peers. But nowhere are Black students suspended or expelled more than in the South. Fifty-five percent of the 1.2 million Black students suspended in the U.S. live in just 13 Southern states.It’s true! In absolute numbers, black kids are “suspended or expelled more” “in the South” than in other regions. Having said that, it’s time to note a basic fact which didn’t appear in Harper’s study—or in any of the journalism we've seen about the study, from the New York Times on down.
In a new report, the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education offers a state-by-state, school district-by-district examination of school discipline for Black students in the South.
Researchers Edward Smith and Shaun Harper found Black students were consistently suspended and expelled at higher rates than their peers across the region. This held true in urban, suburban, and rural districts, for both Black boys and Black girls. The study is an analysis of every public school district in the South, over 3,000.
“The findings in our report point to the residual effects of Jim Crow, slavery, and unequal schooling,” Harper said. "They are further explained by poverty trends, structural inequities in the education workforce, and a longstanding history of racial injustice that cyclically reproduces itself, especially across these 13 Southern states."
As far as we know, it’s true! As Professor Harper noted, fifty-five percent of the black students who got suspended in the 2011-12 school year “lived in just 13 Southern states.” But here’s another fact which is true:
Roughly fifty-five percent of the nation's black kids lived in those thirteen states! To all appearances, it never occurred to Professor Harper that he ought to research and report that basic fact.
(For a review of the student population data, see our September 2 report.)
Do American “education reporters” know anything about black kids? Do they know that their math scores are vastly improved? Do they know that, in disproportionate numbers, they attend public schools in the South?
If they know about those math scores, they’ve sworn that they’ll never tell! They’ll simply continue to rattle the preferred elite scripts about our failing schools, our ratty teachers, and our need for more charter schools and more “education reform.”
If they know where black kids actually live, they agreed not to mention the fact when they discussed Professor Harper’s bungled, embarrassing study. Instead, they ran to repeat a tired old tale, a tale they memorized long ago:
Those crackers down South are abusing black kids! That’s where black kids get suspended!
In this case, their pleasing old tale was stupidly wrong. But they showed they knew how to recite!
As we noted yesterday, the journalistic problem began in the New York Times. Like the two professors at Penn, the underwhelming Motoko Rich reported the one basic fact while failing to mention the other.
She noted that “half of all the suspensions and expulsions of black students nationwide occurred” in the “13 Southern states” included in the new study. She failed to note that more than half of all black students nationwide live in those thirteen states.
A thrilling impression was created, right outta In the Heat of the Night. “Education reporters” have seen that film. Soon, they began to type.
Doggone it! At the Christian Science Monitor, staff writer Henry Gass went for the con. We’ll post a large chunk of his report, whose basic claims are simply wrong:
GASS (8/27/15): Black students in Southern states are suspended and expelled at a rate much higher than anywhere else in America, a new report finds.Professor Harper was most surprised by the fact that “55 percent of those suspensions occurred in just 13 states, and those states were in the South.” He failed to note that 55 percent of the nation’s black kids go to school in those same thirteen states.
Of the 1.2 million black students suspended from K-12 public schools across the country, 55 percent occurred in 13 Southern states, according to a report by Edward Smith and Shaun Harper, researchers at the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
While public schools in those states average more black students than the rest of the country, black students were suspended or expelled at a disproportionately higher rate than black students in other states, according to this analysis of data from the 2011-12 academic year.
The report, released earlier this week, finds that black boys made up 47 percent of suspensions and 44 percent of expulsions from K-12 public schools across those 13 Southern states, while they represented only 35 percent of suspensions and 34 percent of expulsions from those schools nationally.
The initial figure of 1.2 million black student suspensions in a school year was “horrifying,” says Dr. Harper, executive director for the center and a professor at the university's Graduate School of Education.
“But what surprised us most is that 55 percent of those suspensions occurred in just 13 states, and those states were in the South,” he adds.
Apparently, it didn’t occur to Gass to research this basic fact.
Everybody makes mistakes, but our “education reporters” make this practice their specialty. At a long list of major news orgs, journalists followed this pattern. They reported the one fact with an air of shock and concern while failing to mention the second.
At the Atlantic, a promising young reporter who’s right out of college went for the con in the following way. She specifically cited what she thought she had read in the New York Times:
GREEN (8/26/15): Taken as a whole, white students in the U.S. account for the largest share of one-time suspensions and expulsions. Still, discrepancies emerge when considering how the numbers compare to enrollment...What did she think she had read in the Times? She seemed to think that she had read that the discrepancies in suspension rates were “particularly egregious” in the South!
The discrepancies are particularly egregious in certain parts of the country. As The New York Times reported on Tuesday, a new analysis of the federal data finds that black students in 13 Southern states are suspended or expelled “at rates overwhelmingly higher than white children.” In 132 of the districts analyzed, for example, black students were suspended at rates at least five times greater than their representation in the student population.
Green seems like a promising young journalist. Should a publication like the Atlantic use folk who are just two months out of college as front-line education reporters? Should an editor perhaps have thought to research that second fact?
Or does the Atlantic simply exist to hand us tired, canned old stories? Are black kids just a vehicle for telling these pleasing old tales?
Especially in the South, many major newspapers reported on the study. We saw no one who noted that the number of black suspensions in the region actually correspond to the number of black students.
At NPR, Ari Shapiro and Claudio Sanchez got flat-out conned on that point. In an interview on All Things Considered, this exchange occurred:
SHAPIRO (8/25/15): For years, there has been mounting evidence that schools across the country suspend and expel black students at a much higher rate than white students. Today, a study by the University of Pennsylvania singles out 13 Southern states where the problem is worst. Here's NPR's Claudio Sanchez:Is the problem worst in those Southern states? The disproportion in those states seems to match that in the nation as a whole. Meanwhile, Sanchez specifically suggested that “suspension rates are higher” in the South because “they enroll more black kids than anywhere else.”
SANCHEZ: Now, Harper says most people presume that because these schools are in the South, they enroll more black kids than anywhere else, and that's why their expulsion and suspension rates are higher. Wrong, says Harper.
HARPER: Blacks are only 24 percent of the students enrolled in public schools in those states, yet they are 48 percent of students suspended and 49 percent of students expelled.
He quoted Harper saying that is wrong! He then presented Harper offering a statistic which doesn’t speak to the point at hand. That represents complete incompetence—by Shapiro and Sanchez and the team at NPR.
You’d think the education press would be equipped to get this sort of thing right. You’d think that, but of course you’d be wrong! At Education Week, Evie Blad wrote the following, under a headline which went for the con:
BLAD (8/27/15): Black Students’ Discipline Rates Are Especially High in the South, Study FindsBased on the data in this study, black students’ discipline rates aren’t “especially high in the South” as compared to other regions. Blad didn’t seem to understand this fact—and neither did Professor Harper, who provided a list of regional historical factors to explain a regional deviation which doesn’t seem to exist.
Researchers Edward Smith and Shaun Harper attribute the findings in this week’s report to a legacy of disparate treatment in the South.
“The findings in our report point to the residual effects of Jim Crow, slavery, and unequal schooling,” Harper said. “They are further explained by poverty trends, structural inequities in the education workforce, and a longstanding history of racial injustice that cyclically reproduces itself, especially across these 13 Southern states.”
Meanwhile, Blad included this horrific howler in a list of additional findings:
“In 84 districts, 100 percent of the suspended students were black. The report does not say what percentage of these districts’ enrollment is made up of black students.”
Just for the record, many of those “100 percenter” districts aren’t school districts at all in the normal sense. They are stand-alone charter schools, quite a few of which enrolled no white students at all.
These “districts” only suspended black kids? They had no white kids they could suspend! Meanwhile, the report does say “what percentage of these districts’ enrollment is made up of black students.” Blad apparently didn’t look at the study’s voluminous district-by-district data.
Nowhere was the bungling worse than at the august National Journal.
Good God! At the august National Journal, Alexia Campbell fashioned a list. Her list appeared beneath this headline:
“These 10 Districts Lead the Nation in Black-Student Suspensions”
The study had covered just thirteen states. What made Campbell think she could name the ten leading districts in the nation?
Someone else will have to figure that out. Meanwhile, Campbell completely misunderstood one of the basic statistics provided for each of the more than three thousand districts covered by the study. When the professors’ charts said that 50 percent of suspended students in a given district were black, Campbell thought the statistic meant that 50 percent of all black students in the district had been suspended that year.
That wasn’t what the statistic meant! At any rate, out of all this confusion, which school district was said to “lead the nation in black-student suspensions?”
Good God! Campbell named the South Side School District in Bee Branch, Arkansas—a tiny rural district with 528 students in all, only six of whom were black.
According to the professors’ data, exactly two of South Side’s black students got suspended that year; the other four did not. At the National Journal, this meant that this tiny rural district “leads the nation in black-student suspensions.”
From a press corps which functions in these ways, does anyone think we’ll ever see a serious discussion of black kids’ rising math scores? Will the public ever be told about this apparent good news? Or will this “press corps” keep repeating the “easy reader” stories they so deeply love?
In those easy reader narratives, Southern crackers are suspending black kids at rates unlike those in the rest of the nation! Also, our schools are either in decline or are stagnant, thanks to our ratty public school teachers with their infernal unions!
Neither story seems to be true. But when you see the way these news orgs handled this thoroughly bungled study, do you think our imitation “press corps” will ever try to deduce and report the truth about the rising test scores produced by the nation's black kids?
Given its role in the overall discourse, the standard fail by the New York Times was the most significant journalistic fail in this whole embarrassing episode. By way of contrast, the fail which we find most instructive happened at the elite pseudo-news site, Slate.
We say that because of the “education reporter” who fashioned it.
Jacob Weisberg must have been off at his tony weekend place. At his elite pseudo-news site, Laura Moser reported the professors’ study in a piece which carried this headline:
“Schools in the South Suspend and Expel Black Students Way More Than White Ones”
Technically, that’s accurate, if a bit jumbled. But by the end of her first paragraph, the inexperienced, unqualified Moser was out on some very thin ice:
MOSER (8/25/15): A new study has found that black students in Southern states get suspended and expelled at exponentially higher rates than white ones, an imbalance that experts have warned against for years. The “Disproportionate Impact of K–12 School Suspension and Expulsion on Black Students in Southern States” report, released Tuesday by the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education at University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, found that 55 percent of the 1.2 million black students who are suspended nationwide every year (and 50 percent of them who are expelled) are concentrated in just 13 Southern states. As if the statistic weren’t lopsided enough, black students constituted just over 20 percent of the total student population in these states.“55 percent of the 1.2 million black students who are suspended nationwide every year...are concentrated in just 13 Southern states?” Plainly, Moser seemed to be suggesting that that was more than the region’s appropriate share.
In her next sentence, she made that suggestion perfectly clear—and she made an analytical blunder. “As if the statistic weren’t lopsided enough, black students constituted just over 20 percent of the total student population in these states,” she wrote, failing to offer the relevant fact and drawing a bungled comparison.
Do black kids “constitute just over 20 percent of the total student population in these states?” It’s a little hard to say! The professors offer two different percentages at two different places in their study. (See below).
Whatever! Let’s assume Moser’s statistic is right. Are black kids just twenty percent of the student population in those thirteen states? That isn’t the relevant figure!
Using the relevant statistic, we note that black kids in those thirteen states constitute roughly 55 percent of the national black student population. If those states produce 55 percent of nationwide black student suspensions, this means that black kids are being suspended at the same rate in the South as in other regions.
Moser had gone for the con. But just so we’d know that she’s down with the cause, she was soon snarking in this tweet as she offered a link to her piece:
“Black students get suspended way more than white ones in the South. Big surprise.”
Moser has plainly seen rivers. What she hasn’t done is education reporting.
At the age of roughly 37, Moser has had a substantial career, but it has been in the writing of Young Adult novels, not in education reporting. But so what? Today, for reasons which go unexplained, Slate has Moser bungling a series of education reports—in conjunction with the Columbia Journalism School, no less! According to Slate, Moser’s reports are part of a project called SCHOOLED, produced in conjunction with the Columbia Journalism School’s Teacher Project.
Why is a long-time writer of Young Adult novels suddenly off doing that? When Jake comes back, he'll explain.
Contempt for black kids is written all over the way these news orgs function. Weisberg was off at his weekend retreat. In all likelihood, he’s never heard about the math scores his site declines to report.
There’s much more to say about that bungled study from Penn. The bungling within it was epic, sometimes comical, legion. In a rational world, Penn would be forced to explain how it ever got published.
You don’t live in that rational world. Every day of the week, your “press corps” helps prove it.
Of one thing you can feel fairly sure. Your press corps doesn’t care about black kids, or about their fucking score gains.
They don’t care what those rising scores mean. They don’t care about how we might reduce our achievement gaps.
Your press corps cares about easy readers, stories they’ve memorized and know how to type. In this case, they rushed to report the way Those Crackers way down South are still abusing black kids.
They’ve never heard about black kids’ test scores. Beyond that, they plainly don’t care.
Tomorrow: Chait discusses New Orleans
The Penn professors do it again: How many kids in those thirteen Southern states are black? Thanks to two professors at Penn, you can take your pick!
COVER SHEET: Despite comprising only 20.9% of students in the 3,022 districts analyzed, Blacks were suspended and expelled at disproportionately high rates.Four weeks after the study appeared, these dueling statistics remain unreconciled. Do they care about black kids at Penn?
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: On average, Blacks were 24% of students in the 3,022 districts we analyzed, but rates at which they were suspended and expelled are disproportionately high.