Indifference, cluelessness pretty much all around: This past Sunday evening, Betsy DeVos appeared on 60 Minutes.
DeVos is Secretary of Education. She seems to know little or nothing about the nation's public schools. Also, just as a general matter, she doesn't seem massively sharp.
Betsy DeVos doesn't seem to know much about the public schools. In fairness, neither does Leslie Stahl, the long-standing major journalist who pretended to interview DeVos.
Who else doesn't know squat or squadoodle about the public schools? We'd nominate Dana Milbank, who columnized about DeVos in the Washington Post. We're going to guess that Michelle Goldberg, who wrote this column in the Times, may not know a giant amount about the public schools either.
In fact, the public schools are virtually never discussed, in any real way, within the mainstream or liberal press. This is especially true of low-income schools. The truth is, nobody cares about low-income kids, or about the schools they attend, except to the extent that low-income schools can be used to score points in some narrow tribal argument.
Nobody cares about low-income kids; few things could be much more clear. That said, having licked every person in the house, we're going to focus on David Brooks' column in yesterday's New York Times.
Brooks is smarter than the average MSM bear. We'd also assume he's more sincere.
Despite all that, he launched a column about the latest mandated talking-point—the greatness of Chicago's public schools. He attributed this greatness to the latest hot theory—great principals make for great schools.
When columnists write about public schools, they're usually carrying water shaped for them by the so-called educational experts. They're usually pushing the latest official hot theory. It's usually clear that they don't actually know what they're talking about, and that they haven't done even the most basic background research.
We got that impression from reading Brooks' column. The passage in question can be found here:
BROOKS (3/13/18): The solutions to the nation’s problems already exist somewhere out in the country; we just do a terrible job of circulating them.In fairness, Brooks mentions two other city school systems, New Orleans and Washington. But he focuses on Chicago, whose "test scores have been rising since 2003."
For example, if you want to learn how to improve city schools, look how Washington, New Orleans and Chicago are already doing it. Since 2011 the graduation rate at Chicago public schools has increased at nearly four times the national average, to 77.5 percent from 56.9 percent...
How is Chicago doing it? Well, its test scores have been rising since 2003. Chicago has a rich civic culture, research support from places like the University of Chicago and a tradition of excellent leadership from school heads, from Arne Duncan to Janice Jackson, and the obsessive, energetic drive of Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
Chicago has expanded early childhood education and imposed universal full-day kindergarten. After a contentious strike in 2012, Emanuel managed to extend the school day. But he and the other people who led this effort put special emphasis on one thing: principals.
We’ve spent a lot of time over the past few decades debating how to restructure schools. We’ve spent a lot of time trying to help teachers. But structural change and increasing teacher quality don’t get you very far without a strong principal.
In fact, almost everyone's test scores have been rising since 2003! You'll rarely read that in big newspapers, and you're routinely given a different impression. But that doesn't mean it's untrue.
Meanwhile, Washington may not be the best urban district to cite at this point in time. The system is currently undergoing its latest wave of embarrassing scandals, this time involving widespread scamming of (gulp!) graduation rates.
Whatever! We were struck by Brooks' reference to Chicago's rising test scores. For the past dozen years or so, we've tried and tried, and tried and tried, to get people like Brooks to report the fact that test scores have been rising all over the country, including in our big city districts.
Alas! As Kevin Drum has demonstrated through his work on lead exposure, it's impossible to introduce information into the American discourse. Information simply isn't allowed in our modern pseudo-discourse at this time, though talk about Stormy is.
For this reason, Americans still aren't allowed to know about those substantial score gains, which bumped back in 2015, the most recent Naep testing for which results have been released. (No one has bothered to talk about that either.)
When we saw Brooks' statement about Chicago's score gains, we decided to look to see how large the gains have been in other urban districts. Our finding:
Chicago has recorded strong gains—but the gains in other urban systems have been even larger.
We looked at score gains in Grade 8 reading and math in the systems shown below. All these gains were recorded on the Naep, our one presumptively reliable testing program.
Most urban districts weren't involved in the Naep's urban system project back in 2003, so we were restricted to a bunch of large systems which were. We looked at score gains by black and Hispanic kids, who form the bulk of these systems' student populations. We used the time period from Brooks' column—2003 through 2015.
What do the gains look like in Grade 8 math? We'll start with the gains recorded by these systems' black kids:
Gains in average scores, 2003 to 2015Chicago's black kids recorded a large score gain. That said, their peers in Boston and Los Angeles recorded slightly larger gains, and black kids in Washington and Atlanta basically gained just as much.
Black students, Grade 8 math, Naep
National public schools: 8.10
Los Angeles: 20.67
New York City: 7.51
San Diego: 9.16
Washington DC: 17.03
(It's generally assumed that there's no cheating on the federally-run Naep program, unlike on the widely corrupted annual statewide tests.)
How did Hispanic kids do in Grade 8 math? Let's take a look at the score gains:
Gains in average scores, 2003 to 2015Here again, Chicago's Hispanic kids have recorded a sizable gain—larger than the substantial gain among Hispanic kids nationwide. But among the eight urban systems we checked, four systems recorded gains which were somewhat larger.
Hispanic students, Grade 8 math, Naep
National public schools: 11.34
Atlanta: Not available
Los Angeles: 19.00
New York City: 7.49
San Diego: 17.69
Washington DC: 19.41
Chicago's healthy score gains don't stand out among these urban systems. The same is true in Grade 8 reading, where the score gains have been substantially smaller across the board.
For whatever it's worth, Los Angeles recorded much larger gains than Chicago in Grade 8 reading. In fact, Los Angeles recorded larger gains in all four measures over this time span, the time span Brooks introduced.
We don't say this to denigrate the efforts being made in Chicago. We say this to denigrate the utter indifference of our upper-end press corps, right across the board.
We've tried and tried, and tried and tried, to ask these people to be more literate in this realm—a realm which is widely discussed, though only to drive preferred narratives. They simply don't care about low-income kids, and it seems they never will.
(They do care about Stephanie Clifford's heroic desire to share her truth about getting "shtupped," as Rachel would thoughtfully say.)
Regarding Brooks' focus on principals, we will only say this. If other districts have made larger gains, why should we privilege the theories coming from Chicago's mayor, who probably doesn't much know what he's talking about?
When crime rates dropped across the nation starting in the early 1990s, every mayor and every police chief had an explanation. Every mayor's particular effort was said to be responsible for the drop in crime in his city. Never mind the fact that crime rates had also dropped as much pretty much everywhere else.
Drum has argued that crime rates have dropped because of lead abatement. Could that be a (tragic) explanation for the rise in the nation's test scores?
In conclusion, Betsy DeVos doesn't seem to know squat. But neither does anyone else.
Please note: Score gains are different from scores. Some systems with smaller gains over this period may have had higher scores in 2015. It all depends on what the system's scores looked like in 2003, when this comparison started.
Example: For black kids and Hispanic kids, Los Angeles' gains were higher than New York City's in Grade 8 math. But as of 2015, New York City's black and Hispanic kids still recorded higher average scores than their peers in Los Angeles, which started way behind.
Maybe Brooks can look this up. Thanks to the federal government's efforts, voluminous Naep data are here.