THE LITTLE SCHOOL SYSTEM THAT COULD: Fourth-grade girl attends school most days!


The Times [HEART] absenteeism:
Has Akron's new I Promise School produced some sort of instant success?

It makes little sense to ask. The school has been open less than a year. Its first year of operation isn't yet completed.

As Erica Green noted in last Saturday's front-page report in the New York Times, this new school's students haven't yet taken the state of Ohio's annual statewide tests. Here's Green, speaking of this new school's students:

"[T]ime will they stack up against rigorous state standardized tests at the end of the year."

In short, there's very little on which we can judge the performance of this new school at this time. Beyond that, it makes little sense—in truth, it makes no sense at all—to expect instant educational miracles during a school's initial year, especially when the school enrolls low-performing students.

It makes no sense to expect some type of instant success! Beyond that, it makes no sense to evaluate a brand-new school before its students have even taken their first batch of actual tests.

That said, the nation's journalists love to tell a certain familiar old story—and it's a familiar old heart-warming story. They love to write the familiar tale about The Little School System That Could.

Sometimes, the Little School System in question is just a Little School. Sometimes, it's just a Little Classroom within a school. Sometimes, The Little School System That Could is a large school system.

Whatever! Journalists love to make readers believe that The Bad News Bears Have Knocked It Out of the Park in some school, school system or classroom. It's a heart-warming, happy-talk story which has been used, for the past fifty years, to throw the interests of the nation's black kids under a smoke-belching little bus.

Last Saturday, on the Times front page, Green penned the latest version of this familiar old tale. Below, you see the double headline which appears atop her report on line, along with the text of a photo caption from the hard-copy report:
DOUBLE HEADLINE: 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.

PHOTO CAPTION: I Promise students waited for a free breakfast. The school's students, identified as the worst performers in the Akron, Ohio public schools, were admitted by a lottery.
In fact, this new school's students were not identified as "the worst performers" in Akron. According to Green's report, the lowest ten percent of performers were excluded from the lottery which brought these kids to this school.

The photo caption misstates that fact in search of a "better story." (Green misstates this fact herself right in her third paragraph.) Meanwhile, to what extent have these third- and fourth-graders "posted extraordinary results" on the school's first set of test scores?

We'll consider that question tomorrow. Prepare to be underwhelmed.

For today, we want to show you how far a newspaper like the Times will go to make its readers believe that they're reading a heartwarming story of instant success. In doing so, we hope to help you consider an anthropological question:

To what extent are we humans really "the rational animal?" Putting the question a different way, to what extent are upper-end American journalists inclined to be "rational" at all?

Tomorrow, we'll review this school's first test scores, to the extent that such test scores exist. For today, let's consider the heartwarming passage which comes at the end of Green's lengthy front-page report.

Below, you see the three paragraphs which end Green's report. Rather plainly, this passage is meant as a familiar type of "before-and-after" narration:
GREEN (4/13/19) Lining the walls of the school’s vast lobby are 114 shoes, including those worn during the 2016 season when Mr. James led the Cleveland Cavaliers to the N.B.A. championship, a reminder that he once walked a path similar to these students. Mr. James was also considered at risk; in fourth grade, he missed 83 days of school.

Nataylia Henry, a fourth grader, missed more than 50 days of school last year because she said she would rather sleep than face bullies at school. This year, her overall attendance rate is 80 percent.

“LeBron made this school,” she said. “It’s an important school. It means that you can always depend on someone.”
Rather plainly, that passage is meant to be read as a classic before-and-after. It's also meant to be taken as a sign of this new school's instant success:

Last year, this fourth-grade girl missed more than 50 days of school! This year, though, thanks to her important new school, she's attending school 80 percent of the time!

What kind of editor would put that presentation in print? Let's unpack the numbers there to see what's actually happening.

This fourth-grade girl is attending school 80 percent of the time. If she maintains that pace to the end of the yea—and there's zero reason to assume that she will—she will have missed 36.4 days of school this year.

We'll grant you this—missing more than 36 days of school is better than missing more than 50! If she maintains that pace to the end of the year, this student's attendance record will have been better this year than last.

More precisely, her rate of attendance will have moved from 72 percent all the way to 80 percent. That's if she maintains her current pace, which, of course, she may not.

It's very, very, very silly to offer a trivial anecdote like that as an implied example of a school's implied success. On a journalistic basis, it's deceptive to offer this anecdote in the way the Times chose to do, with the numbers jumbled in such a way as to disguise the minor gain in attendance rate being described.

That passage becomes an offense against decency when we consider one final point—when we consider how bad that current attendance rate still is. Assuming even minimal competence on the part of Green's editors, that passage become an open insult to the Times readers' intelligence.

That fourth-grade child has been maintaining an 80 percent attendance rate. That fact is presented as a triumph of the will—as an implied example of this new school's implied success.

In fact, an 80 percent attendance rate would be scored as "chronic absenteeism" anywhere in the United States. Here you see an official statement by the United States Department of Education:
USDOE: Students who are chronically absent—meaning they miss at least 15 days of school in a year—are at serious risk of falling behind in school. Yet, for too long, this crisis in our nation's public elementary and secondary schools has not been fully understood. Now, under the Every Student Succeeds Act, many states are reporting chronic absenteeism data annually. This data story, updated with the 2015–16 Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC), bolsters efforts to reduce and ultimately eliminate chronic absenteeism so that all students have a better chance of reaching their full potential.
In that statement, the USDOE says a student is "chronically absent" if she misses 15 days of school in a year. It presents this as a civil rights concern.

In its heartwarming closing passage, the New York Times seems to be praising a fourth-grade child who's on pace to miss 36 days of school! She's absent at more than twice the rate the USDOE regards as chronic!

That said, should a student be graded "chronically absent" if she misses 15 days? At this link, you'll see The Education Trust noting the way that definition now works as a matter of law.

In fairness, that definition by the USDOE is fairly tough. At this link, you'll see Edutopia citing a slightly softer standard:

"Chronic absenteeism is typically defined as missing 10 percent or more of a school year—approximately 18 days a year."

"Chronic absenteeism is typically defined as missing 10 percent or more of a school year?" In its heartwarming closing passage, the New York Times is praising a child who's absent twenty percent of the time—and yes, that standard obtains in Akron. Here's the state of Ohio's official statement:
OHIO DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION: It is important for Ohio’s students to be in class every day ready to learn. Ohio defines chronic absenteeism as missing 10 percent or more of the school year for any reason. A child who is not in school is a child who is missing out on his or her education.
The state of Ohio says you're chronically absent if you miss ten percent of the school year. The New York Times is praising a kid who currently doubles that rate!

In her upbeat front-page report, Green presented no data about this new school's overall attendance rate. Instead, she singled out one child—a child who is chronically absent—and presented the data in such a way as to mislead readers about this state of affairs.

Why does the New York Times work this way? When it comes to this familiar old story, you might as well ask why water runs downhill.

For fifty years, the nation's newspapers have functioned this way with respect to The Little School System(s) That Could. Our newspapers love to publish this silly old tale. When it comes to peddling this tale, it's No Nonsense Left Behind!

Relentlessly, our newspapers have conned their readers with ridiculous, heartwarming tales based on deceptions of this type. Tomorrow, we'll show you how silly the Times was willing to be concerning the "extraordinary results" this school has allegedly posted "on its first set of test scores."

"Man [sic] is the rational animal," Aristotle is said to have said. In fairness, he'd never read the New York Times when it decided to tell you the tale of The Little School System That Could.

Tomorrow: Ninth percentile, here we come!


  1. “It's a heart-warming, happy-talk story which has been used, for the past fifty years, to throw the interests of the nation's black kids under a smoke-belching little bus.”

    Time will tell if the I Promise school will “work.” But it is undeniable that its purpose is to help black kids, specifically some of the lowest performing kids in Akron. The article cautions against too much enthusiasm, but reports on a serious and sincere effort to help some of the most severely disadvantaged kids.

    Frankly, it’s unclear what kind of story will ever appeal to Somerby. But at the very least, the article is not about elite schools or top students, and serves to highlight the problems that exist for the students the I Promise school is serving and encourages others to think about ways they could help these kids and others like them elsewhere.

  2. Note that this article contradicts the reasoning under Brown v. Bd of Ed, that separate accommodations were inherently unequal. The Court cited the psychological harm that segregation had on black children. Apparently this school is predominantly black, yet the Times says it's producing superior education.

    1. Which, in a rational world, shows that liberals (think LeBron and the article’s author) aren’t obsessed with integration.

      You’ve made an observation about this story that escaped Somerby. Congratulations.

    2. The Court did not say attending a school with predominantly black enrollment harmed black students psychologically. As I believe you well know, the Court found a distinct factor would cause the harm:

      We come then to the question presented: Does segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race, even though the physical facilities and other "tangible" factors may be equal, deprive the children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities? We believe that it does.

      ...To separate them from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.

      The effect of this separation on their educational opportunities was well stated by a finding in the Kansas case by a court which nevertheless felt compelled to rule against the Negro plaintiffs: Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children.

      The impact is greater when it has the sanction of the law, for the policy of separating the races is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the negro group. A sense of inferiority affects the motivation of a child to learn.

      Segregation with the sanction of law, therefore, has a tendency to [retard] the educational and mental development of negro children and to deprive them of some of the benefits they would receive in a racial[ly] integrated school system.
      [END QUOTE]


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  4. Clearly Bob Somerby never reads his own blog's comment section, so one must wonder why he even has one.

    ● Somerby never weeds out spam, like the above.

    ● Somerby continues to post, erroneously, the claim: "'Man [sic] is the rational animal,' Aristotle is said to have said" — despite multiple corrections posted in previous comment sections. (Aristotle's word was 'anthropos', which conveys humanity in general rather than specifically adult male human beings; thus the English word anthropology means the study of humanity overall, not just the study of adult male human beings.) Somerby persists in asserting "sic" when the truth is no "sic" thing.

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