Part 2—Four paths to denigration: Even as we worked on this series, the New York Times published a front-page report concerning the educational challenges confronting the Bridgeport, Connecticut schools.
We were struck by several aspects of that front-page report. We drew a general conclusion:
Even as we face educational challenges within our public schools, we face daunting journalistic challenges concerning the way our public schools get portrayed, discussed, reported.
What was "wrong" with that front-page report? It started with a derogatory, yet highly familiar, portrait of Bridgeport's pitiful students. It also suggested an obvious question—a question which went unmentioned.
The derogatory portrait of Bridgeport's students was almost wholly anecdotal. Here's how that front-page report began:
HARRIS AND HUSSEY (9/12/16): The two Connecticut school districts sit side by side along Long Island Sound. Both spend more than the national average on their students. They prepare their pupils for the same statewide tests. Their teachers, like virtually all the teachers in the state, earn the same high marks on evaluations.Do fifth-grade students in Bridgeport, Connecticut "often" read at kindergarten level?
That is where the similarities end: In Fairfield, a mostly white suburb where the median income is $120,000, 94 percent of students graduate from high school on time. In Bridgeport, the state's most populous and one of its poorest cities, the graduation rate is 63 percent. Fifth graders in Bridgeport, where most people are black or Hispanic, often read at kindergarten level, one of their teachers recently testified during a trial over school funding inequities.
It all depends on what the meaning of "often" is! At any rate, that's what one teacher said!
That anecdotal portrait was good enough for the second paragraph of a news report on the front page of the Times. It painted a very familiar portrait of those pitiful black and Hispanic kids.
Middle-class subscribers have been exposed to that familiar portrait at least since the 1960s. They encounter the same portrait when Donald J. Trump offers his hyperbolic account of life in today's "inner city."
(Key difference: When Trump offers his hyperbolic account, it's treated as the latest example of his ugly racism. When the New York Times presents such an account, it's regarded as the soul of our empathetic education reporting.)
Do fifth-grade students in Bridgeport, Connecticut "often" read at kindergarten level? The statement is so imprecise that it has no real meaning. Let's try to work from some actual data instead.
Based on data compiled by Stanford's Sean Reardon, it looks to us like the average student in Bridgeport is something like two years below traditional grade level when he or she enters the sixth or seventh grade. The average student in nearby, affluent Fairfield will be something like two years above grade level.
That's a very large "achievement gap"—a very large gap between the kids in Bridgeport and their peers in Fairfield. That said, we were struck by the fact that the New York Times never used Reardon's actual data, which the paper had presented and tried to discuss just four months before.
Instead, the Times offered a derogatory, anecdotal account which painted Bridgeport's black and Hispanic kids in the least flattering light.
That said, we were struck by something else as we read that front-page report. We were stuck by the presence of a large dog—a dog which didn't bark that day, and pretty much never will.
An obvious question popped into our heads as we read that report: Given the astonishing achievement gap portrayed by that front-page report, how could the Common Core, or any set of "grade-level standards," possibly be relevant to the kids in both those school systems?
Think of it! In one of these school systems, students in the fifth grade "often read at kindergarten level." (In other words, they can't read at all.) Later, we're told that "[s]ome students arrive at [Bridgeport's] Harding High School reading at a third-grade level." That vague, anecdotal report is attributed to an assistant principal.
In Bridgeport, fifth-graders "often read at kindergarten level," we were told. Beyond the high graduation rate, no attempt was made to quantify the achievement of students in Fairfield's schools. But we were told that a "yawning disparities in results" obtains between the neighboring districts.
Given those yawning disparities—given the haplessness "often" found among Bridgeport's black and Hispanic kids—how could any set of grade-level "standards" make sense for both groups of students? This must be the world's most obvious question, even if we restrict ourselves to the (roughly) four-year "achievement gap" suggested by Reardon's data.
It's a blindingly obvious question. But this basic question will never be raised in our education reporting, which often seems to be provided by the journalistic equivalent of the "Sweathogs" who came to fame in the Welcome Back, Kotter sitcom.
In truth, our education reporting often seems to come from the lovable but slowest kids in the school. Even when our brighter journalists wade into the realm of the public schools, they often seem determined to prove their lack of basic skills.
We think of this recent pro-charter essay by Jonathan Chait, in which he fails to come to terms with the possible effects of one unavoidable but obvious form of "creaming." ("The difference was spectacular," Chait writes. For what it's worth, we support the existence of well-regulated charter schools.)
We think of the Washington Post's annual attempt to draw gloomy conclusions from the decline in average SAT scores. (Even though the College Board encourages scribes to do this, this involves an obvious misuse of statistics.)
We think of the Post's persistent attempt to pretend that Washington's recent cheating scandal never occurred, and to disappear the thought that such conduct could imaginably have happened somewhere else.
We think of those well-intentioned trips to Estonia, or in this case to Denmark, in search of the secrets of the world's greatest schools. We think of endless attempts—from the left, the right and the mainstream or the center—to mangle educational statistics to "prove" some preferred partisan point.
We think of endlessly bungled education reporting in the New York Times. We think of the complete indifference observed at for-profit "progressive" sites, starting with MSNBC, whose hosts would sooner jump off the Golden Gate Bridge than discuss the needs and challenges facing low-income children in school.
It often seems the Sweathogs have been placed in charge of our education reporting! It may seem that a second group of these lovable losers has been serving in the role of our "education experts."
Our reporters and experts have a nearly unblemished track record. They seem to have missed every significant event in the operation of our public schools, including the cheating scandals which recently rocked school districts in several major cities.
On a simple technical basis, our reporters and experts may seem to be an underwhelming bunch. But more than anything else, they seem to display a potent group bias:
They love to paint derogatory portraits of our students, our teachers, our schools.
Tomorrow, we'll inquire into the possible source of this persistent bias. For today, let's list four basic sleights-of-hand at which these purveyors of gloom excel.
Let's not use the term "con games." Let's say sleights-of-hand instead:
They report the gaps, disappear the gains: Large achievement gaps persist on the NAEP, our one reliable domestic testing program. The gaps are smaller than they once were, but they're still quite large.
The persistence of these gaps is routinely reported, as is completely appropriate. What doesn't get reported?
Of course! The large score gains which help explain the persistence of these gaps!
It's true! Large achievement gaps exist between white kids and their black and Hispanic peers. But over the course of the past several decades, all three groups have shown large score gains on these highly regarded tests.
Because all three groups have shown large gains, the large gaps persist. But they persist at a higher academic level. Again and again and again and gain, this highly encouraging fact somehow goes unexplained.
Persistently, the public is told exactly half the story—the gloomier half. It should be taken as one of our journalistic challenges:
You simply can't report the gaps without reporting the gains.
They report the PISA, disappear the TIMSS: Nations of the developed world participate in two international testing programs. American students have tended to do better on the TIMSS, less well on the PISA.
For whatever reason, our education reporters tend to tell exactly half the story—the gloomier half. They tend to report results from the PISA, disappear the TIMSS.
It should be taken as a journalistic challenge. Absent some sort of explanation, you can't report results from the PISA while ignoring results from the TIMSS.
They disaggregate the NAEP, give aggregate scores from the PISA: Quite routinely, our education reporters "disaggregate" results from the NAEP, as is completely appropriate. They tell us how our black and Hispanic kids performed as compared to their white counterparts.
Although the data are available, this is virtually never done when reporting international tests. This deprives the American public of extremely basic information. For reasons we'll explain by the end of the week, it also tends to reinforce preferred gloomy tales about our international standing.
It ought to be adopted as a journalistic challenge. If you disaggregate scores on domestic tests, you ought to disaggregate score on international tests as well.
They won't stop flying to Finland: Over the past dozen years, education writers have persistently taken the trip to Finland, a small, middle-class, unicultural corner of Europe. Upon their return, they reliably churn preferred, gloomy tales about our pitiful teachers and schools.
In part 4 of this week's series, we'll take a final look at the foolishness of this ubiquitous practice. It ought to be a journalistic challenge:
Let's stop making silly international comparisons designed to push gloomy conclusions about our teachers and schools.
Within our education reporting, there exists an obvious bias in favor of gloom-and-doom tales. Tomorrow, we'll discuss the possible sources of this obvious preference.
After that, we'll take a final look at the miracle schools of Finland, which are probably perfectly good. We'll compare test results in that distant corner of Europe to test results in two corners of North America—Massachusetts and Connecticut.
When we do, we'll disaggregate the American scores. We'll look at results from the PISA and at results from the TIMSS.
Will the trips to Finland ever end? Probably not.
The Sweathogs seem to like it there. For whatever reason, their editors seem to like their gloomy conclusions.
Tomorrow: Possible sources of mandated doom-and-gloom