THE LITTLE SCHOOL SYSTEM THAT COULD: Future Anthropologists speak out on the Times!


"It's the best they can do," we've been told:
As we noted yesterday, Kevin Drum made several excellent points in his March 22 post.

Since such a thing is so rarely done, it's worth revisiting those points. That's especially true in the wake of the New York Times' recent revival of a long-standing press corps favorite tale, The Little School System That Could.

Back to Drum! As his first major point, he said our public school achievement gaps are actually real. He also said that true-believing pseudo-progressives should stop pretending they aren't:
DRUM (3/22/19): I think progressives are ill-served by the continuing notion that every standardized test ever invented is racially biased in a massive way. Over the past several decades, the organizations that create these tests have gone to considerable lengths to address racial bias, and they’ve been largely successful. The tests aren’t perfect, and they have flaws quite aside from any questions of race, but they aren’t terrible either.


These gaps are real effects of education, not just an artifact of test-taking, and the fact that the gaps increase over time is good evidence that much of the fault lies with our schools and the communities they serve. We miss this if we insist that standardized tests are useless. After all, if there’s no “real” gap at all, then our schools must be doing fine.
We agree with almost every point. We especially recommend Drum's final point, which basically goes like this:

If our achievement gaps are just an artifact of lousy testing, then our schools (and "the communities they serve") must be doing fine as things stand. There's no reason for us to waste our time wondering how to improve them! We can go back to reading about fellows who won't kiss their girl friends!

There's no reason for us to wonder how we can improve them! Keep that award-winning thought in mind. We'll return to it all through the week.

First, though, we proceed to Drum's second basic point. In his second basic point, Drum said that he himself doesn't know how to "fix" our low-income schools, and he almost implied that no one else does either:
DRUM: I’m no expert in how to close this gap, though I can say that there have been many dozens of serious efforts—some aimed specifically at schools, others aimed at parents and communities—and virtually all of them have failed. In any case, we shouldn’t pretend there’s nothing here except a bunch of racist test constructors.
Drum doesn't know how to erase those gaps. In that passage, he almost seems to suggest that, at this point in time, no one else knows how to do that either.

In a slightly different world, those points could form the foundation for a serious discussion of low-income schools. In this world, no such thing will ever occur, because no one actually cares about low-income schools, or about the good decent kids who, on average, produce low test scores within them.

No one cares about those kids, and no one ever has, from the NAACP on down. This fact is mads abundantly clear by the way this topic is never discussed, and by the ridiculous clowning which ensues when major elites, on rare occasions, pretend to stage such discussions.

Below, you see one of the basic data sets which define our current achievement gap. As we show you those data, we ask you a question—have you ever seen Rachel Maddow discuss any such statistics or the reality lying behind them?
Average scores, Grade 8 math
Public schools nationwide, 2017 Naep

White students: 292.16
Black students: 259.60
Hispanic students: 268.49
Asian-American students: 309.52
According to a standard though very rough rule of thumb, those data describe enormous gaps in academic achievement. In response to the question we posed, you've never seen Maddow discuss this topic, and you never will.

Our highly self-impressed liberal tribe likes to pretend that we deeply care about the lives and the interests of the nation's black kids. In recent years, we've even invented a way to show how much we care:

Whenever a young black person is shot and killed, though only by police, we start inventing and disappearing facts to make the situation seem even more heinous. This is how we in our self-impressed tribe now show that we really care!

Let's return to the specific question of the nation's low-income schools. Within the nation's upper-end press, the operation of those schools is almost never discussed in any serious way.

Instead, the upper-end press has invented a way to show that it really cares. On an intermittent basis, it pleasures us with feel-good "news reports" under happy-talk headlines like these:
LeBron James Opened a School That Was Considered an Experiment. It’s Showing Promise.
The inaugural class of third and fourth graders at the school has posted extraordinary results on its first set of test scores.
On line, those headlines sit atop the lengthy "news report" which appeared on the front page of last Saturday's New York Times. The report, which was really a feel-good novel, concerned a new public school in Akron which is being partially funded by NBA star LeBron James.

The claim that the school is "showing promise" is an allusion to its name; it's called The I Promise School. The claim that the school, which hasn't yet finished its first year, has already "posted extraordinary results on its first set of test scores" is an utterly foolish claim, a point we'll discuss tomorrow.

That said, it's as we've told you! That front-page report in the New York Times is part of a long-standing tradition—a tradition in which elites pretend that our achievement gaps can be easily whisked away.

Future Anthropologists Huddled in Caves (TM), the disconsolate group of future scholars who report to us from the aftermath of the global conflagration they glumly describe as Mister Trump's Inevitable War through a set of nocturnal submissions the haters like to refer to as dreams, have told us that they like to refer to this press corps tradition by sampling the late Joseph Campbell:

To this gloomy group of future scholars, this fifty-year journalistic tradition is "The Misdirection With A Thousand Faces." Or so we think we've heard them say in several of those recent "dreams."

The story has assumed many different looks since the 1960s, but its basic shape is always the same. We're always told, when we're handed this story, that it shouldn't really be all that hard to make those gaps go away!

Nothing to look at! Just move along! So says this heart-warming tale.

The problem just isn't that vast! We just need someone like Michelle Rhee, who went into a poverty-area Baltimore elementary school and produced a set of (alleged) test scores which everyone but the American press corps (and the D.C. City Council) knew were fraudulent all the way down.

(She ended up presiding over a major cheating scandal.)

We just need a program like Teach For America, with a charismatic leader like Princeton's own Wendy Kopp, who told Charlie Rose every kind of crackpot success story as Rose agreed to pretend that her claims made sense.

We just need a school like Alexandria, Virginia's Maury Elementary, which was hailed atop the front page of the Washington Post for its fantastic test scores. When we did a bit of checking, it turned out that the school's third-graders actually had the second lowest passing rate of any school in the entire state of Virginia on the tests in question.

(As the chairman of the state board conceded to us, the state had been running a statewide test score scam. He said that he had known nothing about the scam, and we saw no reason to doubt that. The Post never retracted its front-page report. More significantly, it never reported the fact that the state of Virginia had admitted running a statewide scam.)

We just need a school like [NAME WITHHELD] Elementary, which was getting praised for its annual drop-dead test scores in the Baltimore Sun as of 1972. We happened to know two experienced teachers at the school; they told us about the widespread cheating taking place there. They said it was taking place at the direction of some federal bureaucrats who had told the school's teachers, in a faculty meeting, that they had to get their test scores up to continue their generous federal funding under the (we think) Model Cities program.

(We ended up writing several articles in the Baltimore Sun on this general topic. Forty years later, the mainstream press corps finally caught on to this general problem—though it was USA Today which blew the whistle on some major cheating scandals, not the Washington Post and certainly not the Times.)

For us, there have been many other "faces" to this endless story. Several involved [NAME WITHHELD], editor-in-chief of the [NAME WITHHELD] standardized tests, who told us about the way this story was playing out on the test publisher level.

(Hint: Allegedly fraudulent national norms, which explained why the [NAME WITHHELD] standardized tests were suddenly gaining market share, especially among urban school districts. He also told us—in the early 1980s!—that test publishers, for a fee, would scan answer sheets for bogus erasure patterns, a sign of organized school-level cheating. Thirty years later, the nation's press caught on.)

One other "face" involved Dr. John Cannell, whose comically-named Lake Wobegon Report created a brief surge of press corps interest in test score cheating. ("By early 1988, all 50 states were testing above the publisher's national norm, a phenomenon dubbed the 'Lake Wobegon' effect.") Needless to say, this surge in interest disappeared from press corps memory like the morning dew.

There are many different ways to execute The Misdirection With A Thousand Faces. That said, the behavior in these episodes all tended to have the same effect—it let people think our achievement gaps aren't really as large as they are.

At any rate, through all these years and all these episodes, the upper-end press corps never stopped writing the standard heartwarming story about The Little School System, Low-Income School or Low-Income Classroom That Could. Last Saturday, there the story was again, on the front page of the Times.

Fresh off weeks of ridiculous claims that Gotham's vast achievement gaps are an artifact of test prep (full stop), the upper-class paper was pleasuring readers with this heart-warming story again!

We mentioned Future Anthropologists Huddled in Caves (TM) for an important reason. They keep telling us that we should regard this nagging saga as an anthropological question.

"You're up against the intellectual and moral limitations of the one remaining human species," they've gloomily said, with a nod to Professor Harari. "These journalists simply aren't wired to care about the nation's black kids, or to handle actual data.

"Instead, they're wired to keep producing these heartwarming tales." So these future disconsolate scholars have quite instructively said.

Is this really just an anthropological problem? So these shivering scholars have said, transmitting from the entrances to future fire-warmed caves.

Tomorrow, we'll examine the "extraordinary results on its first set of test scores" that new school in Akron is said to have posted. We'll also review the attendance record of that one fourth-grade girl.

"Strange as it may seem, this is the best the Times can do!" So our scholars have recently said, speaking while huddled in caves.

Tomorrow: 80 percent attendance! To the Times, that ain't half bad!


  1. Improvement for the girl with the extraordinary number of absences could be due to regression to the mean. A proper study would look at before and after absence rates for a group of students.

  2. “Drum doesn't know how to erase those gaps. In that passage, he almost seems to suggest that, at this point in time, no one else knows how to do that either.”

    Is Drum right? If, as he says, the problem lies with “schools, communities, and parents”, that pretty much encompasses all of society. Thus researching the causes and possible solutions is extremely difficult.

    And there is a lot of research into achievement gaps. It shows possible causes, some with strong correlations, like poverty, but no single, unequivocal answer. And that complexity and uncertainty is the real issue, not lack of concern from the Times or the NAACP or liberal elites.

    Somerby seems to be equivocating. He suggests that no one cares about the gaps, but then can’t or won’t show any actual evidence that the problem is even solvable.

  3. This is a clue to where the problem lies:

    "As predicted, and consistent with previous studies, immigrant-origin Black students academically outperformed their U.S.-origin Black counterparts, earning significantly higher high school grades and demonstrating greater persistence in college."

    1. So, the problem lies with...US-origin blacks. Or with the US. Or with US schools. Again, not real helpful. What is the solution? If it is mostly the fault of the black students and their parents, then the fault surely can’t lie “mostly with schools”, as Kevin Drum opines, can it? Of course, Somerby never gives his opinion, so we don’t know what he really thinks. And, if the onus is on black students and their parents, what is the solution? Should we just say “buck up, blacks” and do nothing as a society? Is poverty perhaps also part of the problem? Again, if so, the fault can’t really lie with schools either, can it?

      Also, everyone seems to be forgetting the giant gaps between Hispanic and white students. What explains that?

    2. Next sentence:

      However, when the effects of high school grades and SES [socioeconomic status] on college persistence were included in a multivariate path model together with immigration status and college social and academic integration, immigration status no longer predicted college persistence.

      In other words, immigrant blacks tend to belong to families who are better educated, more stable maritally, and whose background, if not current situation, is one of greater affluence than native born black Americans.

    3. Lest anyone start jumping to conclusions, there is still a gap even between higher-income blacks and whites. (Somerby has pointed this out before). So it isn’t simply a function of SES.

    4. CMike - I intentionally left out that sentence, because I didn't think it added much. Naturally, students who do well in high school and who stay in college do better than those who don't.

      Note that many of these foreign-born blacks did attend some el-hi school in the US, so it's not clear that the schools are the problem. Also, foreign-born students are at a disadvantage if English isn't their first language. IMHO that makes the difference in performance even more significant.

      IMHO family and culture are the key. Ben Carson was a poor child in Detroit, but his mother valued education, so he excelled. Unfortunately, the US cannot give every child a parent like Ben Carson's mother.

  4. As I’ve pointed out before, and I assume Somerby has – local tax bases can make quite a difference in outcomes.

    “Public school funding in the United States comes from federal, state, and local sources, but because nearly half of those funds come from local property taxes, the system generates large funding differences between wealthy and impoverished communities. Such differences exist among states, among school districts within each state, and even among schools within specific districts.”


    Schools cheat their scores in order to “level” their achievements, in order to satisfy draconian federal requirements to receive federal funding. Perhaps the Fed should step up and fund all schools equally to balance the lack of property taxes in any given district, before demanding that all schools achieve the same results whilst many of them are attempting to do so with fewer resources.



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