GAPS IN CHICAGO: Can Sean Reardon's claim be right?


Part 2—A quick trip back through the years:
Could it really be true? Could Chicago be the place "where students learn the most?"

That's what the headline seemed to say on the New York Times report. The report appeared in mid-December of last year. Needless to say, it has generated exactly zero discussion.

It has generated zero discussion because nobody actually cares. As is blindingly obvious, no gives a flying flip about Chicago's low-income kids who, or so it seemed we were told, are the students who "learn the most."

No one cares at your liberal journals. Rachel and Lawrence don't care. They would greedily gulp the hemlock before they'd deign to discuss Chicago's kids. We know that because more than five months have passed—and no one has said a single word about the high-profile Times report, which seemed to say that Chicago's kids are the ones who "learn the most."

Briefly, let's be fair. For those who read the Times report—for those who got past the headline and the photograph of the six beautiful little girls in a Chicago elementary school—for those who actually read the report, the Times report didn't exactly say that Chicago's largely low-income, "minority" kids are the students who "learn the most."

That isn't exactly what the Times said. More specifically, the Times report said this:
BADGER AND QUEALY (12/13/17): It’s true that children in prosperous districts tend to test well, while children in poorer districts on average score lower. But in this analysis, which measures how scores grow as student cohorts move through school, the Stanford researcher Sean Reardon argues that it’s possible to separate some of the advantages of socioeconomics from what’s actually happening in schools.

In Chicago, third graders collectively test below the second-grade level on reading and math. But this data shows that over the next five years, they receive the equivalent of six years of education.
By the eighth grade, their scores have nearly caught up to the national average.
The headline had overstated what the report really said. According to the actual report, Chicago's kids "test below the second-grade level" at the end of third grade. But over the next five years of school, the average student in Chicago records six years of academic growth.

Badger and Quealy go on to say, partly through the use of a graphic, that this is the largest amount of growth recorded in any of our nation's 200 largest school districts. In one of their interactive graphics, the reader can see that only a limited number of smaller school districts record more growth from Grade 3 through Grade 8 than the Chicago Public Schools, the nation's third-largest school system.


According to the Times report, kids in Chicago don't exactly "learn the most." But on average, they record nearly the largest academic gains of any group of kids in the nation during the five-year period from the end of third grade to the end of eighth grade.

The record six years growth in five years time—or at least, so says Stanford's Sean Reardon. The Times report is based on the data from his latest nationwide study.

We've cited Reardon's work many times at this site. Way back when, in April 2013, he became the first person we ever saw break the code of silence concerning this nation's Naep scores—more specifically, concerning the large score gains which have occurred on this "gold standard" of domestic educational testing over the past several decades.

Because no one cares about any of this, no one mentioned what Reardon said. Let's recall the jailbreak he staged away from that noxious silence code. We enter his essay in progress, as he dispels a few myths:
REARDON (4/28/13): Before we can figure out what's happening here, let's dispel a few myths.

The income gap in academic achievement is not growing because the test scores of poor students are dropping or because our schools are in decline. In fact, average test scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the so-called Nation's Report Card, have been rising—substantially in math and very slowly in reading—since the 1970s. The average 9-year-old today has math skills equal to those her parents had at age 11, a two-year improvement in a single generation. ...

The widening income disparity in academic achievement is not a result of widening racial gaps in achievement, either. The achievement gaps between blacks and whites, and Hispanic and non-Hispanic whites have been narrowing slowly over the last two decades.
Say what? Average test scores have been rising—for example, by two years in math by the age of 9? Our public schools are not in decline? As the overall scores go up, the racial gap is narrowing? Could Sean Reardon say that?

Here at this site, we'd been attempting to "dispel those myths" for years when this essay by Reardon appeared—and we'd learned that it can't be done. And sure enough:

Inevitably, no one mentioned what Reardon said when he broke the code of silence that day. That's because no one actually cares about any of this—and certainly not about the lives and interests of Chicago's low-income kids.

In that five-year old essay, Reardon wasn't focused on "racial" achievement gaps. He was focused on the gaps between kids from higher- and lower-income families.

That said, if you read between the lines in the passage we've quoted, you could discern another fact from what Reardon wrote. The average Naep scores of black and Hispanic kids had been growing rapidly too. That explains how "racial gaps" had been narrowing, even as the average American fourth-grader was two years ahead of where her parents had been in math.

When he broke the code of silence, Reardon took a permanent place our radar screen. Five years later, just last month, the Washington Post let an amazing thing occur—the editors let Arne Duncan state the same basic facts:
DUNCAN (4/2/18): Since 1971, fourth-grade reading and math scores are up 13 points and 25 points, respectively. Eighth-grade reading and math scores are up eight points and 19 points, respectively. Every 10 points equates to about a year of learning, and much of the gains have been driven by students of color.

It should be noted that the student population is relatively poorer and considerably more diverse than in 1971. So, while today's kids bring more learning challenges, they perform as much as 2 1/2 grades higher than their counterparts from half a century ago.
Displaying the inevitable ineptitude, Duncan understated the amount of academic growth recorded since 1971. He did so by failing to "disaggregate" those test scores, which also come from the Naep. Had he sifted the data that way, he could have described such apparent advances as these:
Average scores, Grade 8 math, Naep
Nationwide, public schools
Black students only:

2013: 262.73
2011: 261.84
2009: 260.28
2007: 258.90
2005: 254.19
2003: 251.75
2000: 243.27

Hispanic students only:
2013: 271.02
2011: 269.45
2009: 265.90
2007: 264.36
2005: 261.09
2003: 258.13
2000: 251.75
Why have we omitted results from 2015 and 2017? Simple! In the past few years, at the height of Duncan's miraculous reforms, average scores have dropped back a few points for both groups of kids!

We'll post those disappointing scores below. But over the thirteen-year time span we're displaying, Duncan's (standard) ten-point rule suggests that black and Hispanic eighth-graders improved in math achievement by almost two academic years! Unless there's something wrong with those data, black kids were (and still are) way ahead of the black eighth-graders who had come before!

Simply put, the American public has almost never been allowed to hear such facts. Nor have you ever seen anyone inquire as to why that steady academic growth has seemed to come to an end in the past few years.

You've never seen that question raised or discussed! Most simply put, Rachel and Lawrence and other top stars don't care about low-income "minority" kids, and certainly not in Chicago!

The indifference of our corporate elites kept the public from hearing about those very large score gains. That same contempt for low-income kids has kept the public from being told that years of impressive academic gains now seem to have stalled.

Last December, along came Reardon again, this time making a surprising claim about the kids of Chicago. You haven't heard a word about that because, as an obvious matter of fact, nobody actually gives a flip about those non-elite kids. Your favorite stars care about students at Yale!

From the end of grade 3 to the end of grade 8, do Chicago's public school kids really record academic growth which almost goes off the charts? On the other hand, if Chicago's schools are so goldarn good, why were the city's kids scoring so poorly at the end of third grade to begin with?

You've asked two very good questions! Tomorrow, we'll examine the large growth displayed by recent Chicago cohorts on the Naep, from the end of the Grade 4 to the end of Grade 8.

On Friday, we'll offer you some gloomier news. We'll show you why it was almost obscene when a headline told us, in typical fashion, that Chicago is the place "where students learn the most."

You'll hear none of this from Rachel, Lawrence or Chris. Their handlers want you entertained by the nightly excitement of The Chase. When it comes to Chicago's kids, they feel quite sure you don't care.

Tomorrow: From Grade 4 to Grade 8 on the Naep!

The end of an era: Here are the average Grade 8 Naep math scores from the last two test administrations:
Black students only:
2017: 259.60
2015: 259.85

Hispanic students only:
2017: 268.49
2015: 269.47
Why have those scores slid back a few points? We don't have the slightest idea. Also, nobody cares!


  1. I'll give you credit for understanding that any analysis with the word "racial" in it is bullshit, Bob.

    However, your fixation on scores (and especially "average scores") reveals, in my opinion, a typical lib-zombie technocratic attitude.

    Whatever the scores, people growing up in a US inner-city ghetto will not be educated, not in the traditional sense of the word. They will become well-educated in terms relevant to their environment (drug trade, violence, etc.), but not algebra or classical literature.


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  2. "You'll hear none of this from Rachel, Lawrence or Chris. Their handlers want you entertained by the nightly excitement of The Chase."

    Hopefully, MSNBC can set aside its coverage of a grave crisis in our democracy to begin their 11,000-part series "Gaps and Scores At Every School District In America."

    That'll bring those swing voters over to "our" side.

  3. Today's TDH post shows the increasing likelihood that Bob has been replaced by a robot. The real
    Bob is probably holed up with his analysts in a cabin in an undisclosed location somewhere deep in the woods of Montana.

  4. Disclaimer: Bob Somerby is not an education specialist. He was a teacher, but we don't know if he was any good at it. Clearly, he didn't like it much, since he left those beautiful kids behind to hobnob with future Big Deals like Roseanne.

    He has never lived in Chicago. He does live in Baltimore, where he was actually a teacher. But he would rather talk about Chicago's public schools.

    1. It's weird to me that some people are incorrigible on the point that Bob isn't covering schools or testing or any of the rest of it: he's covering reporting on these things.

    2. He doesn't cover reporting. He gripes about reporting and whatever a reporter does, Somerby is unhappy about it.

      Somerby never talks about DeVos, for example, or the press coverage of her term as Education Secretary. He doesn't talk about Common Core or its coverage. He didn't talk about how the press did or didn't coverage the respective education plans for Sanders versus Clinton.

      He mainly mentions college only when describing the elite ivy league backgrounds of reporters he dislikes.

      So don't pretend this blog is about covering education reporting. It plainly isn't.

      People here are responding to the OTHER things Somerby talks about. If he raises a topic it is fair for readers to comment on it. It is weird to me that anyone objects to that.

    3. Hey, anon @1:30: Do ya think maybe the newspaper in deepest darkest Baltimore covers education issues there? Ten to one it does. And Somerby might just know a little more about Baltimore's public schools than Chicago's. (or maybe not).

      When Bobby tells us that "desegregation" of urban schools is a terrible horrible offensive liberal idea, is he merely "covering the reporting" by giving us his personal opinion on this topic?

    4. Bob is right to be very cynical and it has something but not everything to do with race; it has a lot to do with economics. I'm not sure if he trusts his audience with the full picture, but here's sort of what's going on:

      I attended the scholars program at a high school in Albany Park, Chicago which is a working class neighborhood. The school specifically tried to get diversity so that you wouldn't be the only Filipino kid and feel isolated. It worked great, our honors classes were much more diverse, our school had very little violence, high morale, our bands and sports teams won all kinds of competitions.

      On the other hand, at my brother's high school which had a prestigious International Baccalaureate program, the honors students were entirely White/Asian, and the regular classes are all poor and Black. These internally segregated schools are the kinds that New York Times journalists come from, where they learned to say all kinds of hateful things about Black and Arab people. They suppress it but you can sometimes feel it in the subtext when they describe people from Haiti and Palestine as naive or brutish. They're kind of becoming a laughingstock. Bari Weiss applauded an Mirai Nagasu for her success as an immigrant, with the only problem being she was born in California.

      What Bob is possibly alluding to in all these reports on the fake failing of public schools is that they do have competition that is trying to define the discussion, and it's being interpreted by technocrats who grew up in these racist honors programs. Charter schools, rather than explicitly promote segregation like private suburban schools, work through gentrification of the city. The journal Sociology of Education looked national data and found "The ability to opt out of the neighborhood school increased the likelihood that a mostly black or Hispanic neighborhood would see an influx of wealthier residents." ( These schools also support gentrification by not graduating their students who are disabled or learning English. The only reason to do this is to show higher test scores, although even with this going on they rarely beat public schools.

      All of this hullabaloo is really just a distraction from the fact that by championing these schools, our liberal intelligentsia have helped push Black and Hispanic people out of neighborhoods. "Austerity" and "Competition" just mean gentrification. The villains are not the teachers unions, it is the internal segregation of schools.

    5. Just Another Block-Quoting BlockheadJune 1, 2018 at 12:25 AM

      From the Globe & Mail:
      The etymological history of liberal and intelligentsia would suggest the phrase is positive.
      Intelligentsia entered English in the 1920s from the Russian intelligentsiya, which dates back to at least 1836 in its sense of an educated class of people (some sources specify the bourgeoisie) fascinated by and promoting ideas in pre-revolutionary Russia. A 1956 article said "intelligentsia" had long been applied to "intermediaries between local life and wider life."
      The Russian word was probably borrowed from the Polish inteligiencja, which ultimately derived from the Latin intelligentia, intelligence. The Latin verb intelligere combined inter (between) and legere (read, choose); it meant to make choices, to understand. Intelligens, the Latin present participle of intelligere, gave English the word intelligent.
      For its part, the word liberal has led a confused life. Politically, it used to be a rallying cry for those seeking less government and more individual liberty, and more recently has been employed to mean the opposite, a call for greater government regulation.
      But the non-political sense is everything a body might wish. Liberal entered English by the 1300s as a synonym for generous, independent and speaking freely – no surprise, since it originated in the Latin liber, free. By the 1770s, the Oxford English Dictionary records, it had the sense of "free from bias, prejudice, bigotry; open-minded, tolerant." By those lights, the liberal intelligentsia seems a good club to belong to.
      Another thought struck me on reading the phrase. Everyone talks about liberal intelligentsia, but nobody seems to talk about conservative intelligentsia. Yet the phrase exists. A random database check of English-language newspapers over the past 12 months found 164 uses of "liberal intelligentsia" and 29 of "conservative intelligentsia."
      Some of those 29 articles saw conservative intelligentsia as desirable. A piece in the Ottawa Citizen on July 10 regretted that, in Canada, "a conservative intelligentsia is so thin on the ground." But U.S. talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh opined on July 29 that "the conservative intelligentsia, the conservative so-called media inside the Beltway, would have accepted anything" in the debt-ceiling struggle, by which he meant that the intelligentsia didn't have the spine of the Tea Party.

  5. "Simply put, the American public has almost never been allowed to hear such facts. Nor have you ever seen anyone inquire as to why that steady academic growth has seemed to come to an end in the past few years."

    Despite the trashing of American education by press and right-wing politicians, parents are very happy with their local schools and typically give them high ratings. They seem to make an exception for their child's school. I believe that is because most schools are competent and doing a good job with most children.

    When you focus on test scores and compare means across strats, you are talking about most children, even when you disaggregate the data. It is still about means (averages). But parents are focused on the needs of their individual children, so those numbers are not meaningful to them. What does matter is the fit between their child and the resources offered by the school.

    College-educated parents also know what it takes to get into college, so they focus on the actual preparation of their child, not just his grades. They are concerned about test scores, but not the ones that assess schools -- the ones that assess individual children, and that is not the NAEP. They worry about other opportunities, such as AP courses, SAT prep, extracurriculars, good math and science classes. NAEP measures none of that.

    It is too early to interpret a decrease in the rate of improvement in NAEP scores as anything beyond a statistical blip, random variation. But if it were a meaningful change in progress, it would be fair to ask whether improvement is linear and whether the low hanging fruit have been plucked and further improvement might require some other kinds of changes. Unless Somerby wants to wade into the weeds and examine what kinds of change produced the decades of increase in scores, he cannot really talk about why the rate of change seems to be slowing down.

    Children don't develop at a constant rate. Their progress mirrors changes in the brain that occur at certain specific times. So their progress is not linear. Why should progress in improving schools be linear either, especially when different states are doing different things? Unless you know what caused the increase in mean scores, it is hard to discuss why that increase is slowing down. I would love it if we could have that discussion here. It would mean Somerby would stop posting NAEP scores over and over again and actually talk about education.

  6. If people trust these scores, they should be asking, "What is Chicago doing right?" Other school districts should be trying to mimic Chicago's successful approach. Media should be reporting one what Chicago is doing that works so well.

    1. If you found out that Chicago is spending more time on basic skills in reading and math and less time on science or social science or music or art, would you still thinking they were doing things right?

    2. AnonymousMay 30, 2018 at 3:47 PM -- as a hypothetical question, I sure would. Reading and math are so vital in today's society that I would sacrifice various other subjects, IF that were necessary.

      However, I do not necessarily accept the hypothesis, that all these other subjects must be sacrificed in order to teach reading and math.

    3. @david: "Media should be reporting on what Chicago is doing..."

      What do you think the story was reporting that Bob is discussing (and criticizing) here?

  7. Classic Daily Howler in his element. Thanks for this.

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