THE LITTLE SCHOOL SYSTEM THAT COULD: Ninth percentile, here we come!

FRIDAY, APRIL 19, 2019

Life after Ian Watt:
Kevin Drum agrees with us about the absurdity of that closing anecdote in Saturday's New York Times.

He says it contains a "remarkable sentence." We reprint that sentence below, but first, consider this:

"Short of reporting the results in hexadecimal, I don’t think it would be possible to make it more difficult to figure out what this means," Drum wrote in yesterday's post. He referred to this striking sentence from a front-page report in the Times:
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.
You're right! That remarkable sentence is actually two! But at a remarkable time like this, who's keeping score?

In yesterday's report,
we described the peculiarity of the Times' remarkable closing passage. We said it was plainly constructed to convey a standard heart-warming impression at the end of the Times report.

That passage was designed to convey the impression that the fourth grade girl in question has really managed to get her attendance straightened out now that she gets to attend an exciting new school.

As we explained—as Drum explains—that impression is thoroughly bogus. If she's missing school twenty percent of the time, that's double the rate the state of Ohio, and everyone else, regards as "chronic absenteeism!"

That passage was sculpted to make you think that she has really pulled it together at her thrilling new school. That leaves us asking an obvious question:

Was some editor at the Times too dumb to see that this passage was thoroughly bogus? Or did some editor agree to run that ridiculous passage even though he or she knew it made no actual sense?

Dearest readers, let us explain! That paragraph, which comes from a longer passage, appeared in Saturday's Times for an obvious reason.

That passage appeared in the Times because the "news report" it concludes wasn't a news report at all. That news report was a novel!

It was a type of familiar old tale. We mention this fact for a reason:

In China, this is The Year of the Pig, the first such year since 2007. At this site, though, this is The Year of the Rational Animal. All year long, we'll be exploring the actual intellectual traits of this alleged creature—an animal which, like the unicorn, may not exist in the wild!

That front-page report in the New York Times speaks to this basic issue. Question:

Did the editors who waved that report into print understand that it was really a novel? We don't know how to answer that question! But we'll remind you of what Professor Harari has said about the rise of our warlike species, which took control of the world:

According to Professor Harari, we came to dominate the planet when we developed two capacities—the capacity for "gossip" and the capacity for "fiction." Well sir, that "news report" was a species of fiction—it was fiction all the way down.

When we say that news report was fiction, we don't mean to deny the fact that the I Promise School of Akron, Ohio actually does exist.

We don't mean to deny the fact that the school is being generously funded by NBA star LeBron James. We don't mean to deny the fact that the school is in its first year, serving third- and fourth-graders.

We don't mean to deny the fact that the school's student population was formed in a lottery—a lottery restricted to kids whose academic performance in second grade placed them in in the 10th to 25th percentiles, apparently on a nationwide basis.

We don't mean to deny those facts, although we're not entirely sure we understand that last fact. Here's the way that fact is presented in the 23rd paragraph of the New York Times report:
GREEN (4/13/19): I Promise students were among those identified by the district as performing in the 10th to 25th percentile on their second-grade assessments. They were then admitted through a lottery.
For the record, that contradicts what Erica Green wrote in the third paragraph of her front-page report. In that third paragraph, Times readers were pleasingly told that these third- and fourth-graders were Akron's "lowest performers."

In fact, kids who performed below the tenth percentile were apparently excluded from the lottery for this school. That may be a decent idea in a somewhat experimental new school. But readers were misinformed right in paragraph 3, though in a way which makes this feel-good story feel just that much better.

Green's instant misstatement made the story more heart-warming. That's the way our press corps' novelists work.

Beyond that, though, we don't understand why the fourth-graders in the new school were chosen on the basis of their second-grade performance. If that's really what happened, there may have been a good reason for that procedure. But in novels, such issues don't matter. Nothing matters in a press corps novel except the desired emotional result.

Logic and facts play little role. Let's examine that claim.

After noting the obscurity of Green's "remarkable" closing anecdote, Drum went on to reprint some of what she wrote about the "extraordinary results" those third and fourth graders allegedly posted on their first test scores at the I Promise School.

Drum said those results weren't all that great, and that there was something he didn't quite understand. Trust us! Absolutely no one else understood it either:
DRUM (4/18/19): [I]t’s not clear if the school’s performance is all that remarkable:

"...In reading, where both classes had scored in the lowest, or first, percentile, third graders moved to the ninth percentile, and fourth graders to the 16th. In math, third graders jumped from the lowest percentile to the 18th, while fourth graders moved from the second percentile to the 30th."

I don’t quite get this. The story says that students were initially in the 10th to 25th percentile on their second-grade assessments, but the classes as a whole were in the first percentile? I guess that’s possible, but it seems a little unlikely. And even at that, their progress suggests only that they went from functionally illiterate to . . . slightly literate.

That’s better than no progress, but still not a lot to hang this feel-good story on.
Easy to be hard! According to Drum, the jump from the first percentile to the ninth just isn't all that remarkable.

Beyond that, though, lies a point he doesn't quite understand. If those third-graders all scored between the 10th and the 25th percentiles last year, how could their class, as a whole, have been as low as the first percentile?

In saying he supposes that's possible, Drum shows he knows more about such statistical measures than the vast bulk of Times readers would. Indeed, many Times readers might think those third graders actually lost ground in reading this year! After all, they were all in the tenth percentile or higher last year, and this year they scored in the ninth!

This doesn't get explained by Green, perhaps for several reasons. First, there's a very good chance that neither Green, nor her editor, noticed this apparent contradiction, or would know how to explain it.

Second, this news report is really a novel, written for readers' enjoyment. Almost surely, few Times readers noticed these apparent contradictions. They were reading this novel for the happy ending we always get in "stories" of this type.

(The actual explanation: Presumably, those third-graders scored in the ninth percentile this year as a group, when compared to other public school grade groups nationwide. Last year, they all scored in the tenth percentile or higher as individuals, when compared to other individual students nationwide.)

(Back to Drum: If all the kids in a given school score from the 10th to the 25th percentile as individuals, could they possibly be in the first percentile as a group? As Drum and no one else understands, yes, they certainly could be. Presumably, very few schools would have all their kids scoring that low.)

Very few readers of this piece would understand this apparent statistical conundrum. On the bright aside, very few readers would even notice! In a novel, such matters don't count!

(A further conundrum: Presumably, those kids attended a wide assortment of Akron schools last year. In what way does it make sense to say that they were in the first percentile as a school last year, since they weren't together in any one school?)

(Probable answer: Presumably, a school which had all those kids, and no one else, would have ranked in the first percentile nationwide last year.)

We have other basic problems with those test scores; we'll put those problems off until another day. For today, we thought we'd list the other facts we didn't understand as we read Green's report.

Let's start with demographics. Here's how Green described the demographics of this new school:
GREEN: Unlike other schools connected to celebrities, I Promise is not a charter school run by a private operator but a public school operated by the district. Its population is 60 percent black, 15 percent English-language learners and 29 percent special education students. Three-quarters of its families meet the low-income threshold to receive help from the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services.
Just in terms of race and ethnicity, that's an oddly truncated description. How many of the kids are white or Hispanic? For whatever reason, we weren't told.

Meanwhile, the statement about family income is completely opaque. "Three-quarters of its families meet the low-income threshold to receive help from the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services?"

Presumably, that's supposed to make us think this school is very low-income. But how low-income is that threshold? How poor does a family have to be to receive that kind of help from the state of Ohio?

No one reading this "news report" had even the slightest idea! As such, this fact is just an apparent fact—a place-holder. It lets us imagine we're reading a news report when we're actually reading a novel.

(Note: Three-quarters of the students in the New York City Public Schools are designated as "low-income" using the standard public school measure—eligibility for the federal lunch program. Are the I Promise families more low-income than that? If not, the I Promise School would be an average Gotham school based on family income. No reader of this New York Times novel would understand that fact.)

Drum discussed another part of Green's report—her treatment of per pupil spending. We were somewhat puzzled by what she wrote:
GREEN: The school’s $2 million budget is funded by the district, roughly the same amount per pupil that it spends in other schools. But Mr. James’s foundation has provided about $600,000 in financial support for additional teaching staff to help reduce class sizes, and an additional hour of after-school programming and tutors.
A $2 million budget for 240 students? That works out to roughly $8300 per pupil—a sum James is generously enhancing.

We mention that because $8300 per pupil struck us as perhaps somewhat low. And indeed, at this official site, the Akron Public Schools says it spends roughly $14,600 per pupil.

(For the record, there are various ways to measure total school spending.)

Green mentioned the spending only to note that James is enhancing the sum. We mention this apparent disparity only to note that nothing matters is a novel like this except the basic heartwarming elements, in which somebody smiles at The Bad News Bears and their test scores and attendance records magically take off.

So it was in 1967, when Herbert Kohl wrote 36 Children. Kohl showed a bunch of Harlem sixth-graders that he didn't hate them and the kids began writing novels.

So it went when Michelle Rhee showed up at Baltimore's high-poverty Harlem Park Elementary School and decided to make the kids work hard just for once.

After three years, she proceeded to Harvard, claiming that her kids had produced phenomenal test scores—test scores which were fraudulent on their face. That said, the New York Times wasn't willing, or sufficiently skilled, to report that Rhee was running a con—she was smiled upon by Mayor Bloomberg, after all—and she ended up in D.C., presiding over a major cheating scandal.

Is this The Year of the Rational Animal? We submit Green's happy-talk novel as evidence that no such creature has ever existed. A word about this revolutionary anthropological claim:

Long ago and far away, Ian Watt wrote The Rise of The Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding. As far as we know, it remains a classic text.

"This is the story of a most ingenious invention: the novel," Penguin currently says. "Heralded as a revelation when it first appeared, The Rise of The Novel remains one of the most widely read and enjoyable books of literary criticism ever written."

According to Penguin, Watt's volume "captur[es] precisely and satisfyingly what it is about the form that so enthralls us."

That said, the rise of this literary form didn't end with Fielding. It continues to spread in the New York Times, where we allegedly rational animals are still enthralled by its pleasures and, of course, by its standard deceptions and cons.

That fourth-grade girl is chronically absent. Except in the New York Times, where she's used as part of a feel-good tale, then thrown under a bus as part of a tired old con.

Still coming (perhaps): Various ruminations on those "extraordinary results"


  1. There's clearly an error on the percentiles. Most likely, the incorrect statement is that the students entered the school performing at the lowest percentile. If we throw that sentence out, here's what's left.

    The students were selected as between the 10th and 25th percentiles. After several months, on 4 sets of tests, they scored on the 9th, 16th 18th and 30th percentiles. These average out to the 18th percentile. This is virtually equal to the average of that range, 17.5. This is a totally normal result, hardly newsworthy.


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