THE LONG AND THE SHORT: American kids have made large gains!

FRIDAY, JULY 12, 2019

Until you read The Atlantic (The Short):
As we noted yesterday, Miriam Jordan has presented a profile of the Lake Worth, Florida public schools which is deeply humane and intelligent.

Her report concerns the challenges which may be faced by public schools with lots of immigrant kids.

Jordan's intelligent, humane report
appeared in Wednesday's New York Times! Setting that major surprise to the side, we'd consider quibbling with one part of this passage:
JORDAN (7/10/19): South Grade Elementary illustrates the challenges. There are children like 8-year-old Sherly Perez, who crossed the border with her father and lives in a room at her aunt’s house. One child lives with 10 other people in a house with just one bathroom. Some fourth and fifth graders have been suicidal and depressed, school officials say.

A quarter of the children last year who enrolled at the school in third grade, the grade during which the state tests student progress in reading and math, were newcomers. Only 11 percent of kindergartners were assessed as “kindergarten ready” when they started school.

Dayvin Mungia, the second grader who had never attended school, was one of several students who were taught numbers and letters on the side by his teacher when the rest of the class was engaged in other activities.

Ms. Arce-Gonzalez decided it was vital to offer year-round instruction if children were to have any hope of catching up...
Jordan refers to Ana Arce-Gonzalez, "the principal at South Grade Elementary School in the heart of Lake Worth’s immigrant enclave."

Arce-Gonzalez is one of the "righteous Gentiles" portrayed by Jordan is her deeply humane piece. In Jordan's portrayal, Arce-Gonzalez is working around the clock to help these deserving kids who have recently arrived from the south.

Having said that, we will also say this:

Depending on what we mean by the term, it isn't likely that kids who start so far behind will ever be "catching up."

Will Dayvin Mungia, 7 years old, ever "catch up" to our national norms? Will he ever "catch up" to the native-born Florida kids who will score near the top of the SAT/ACT charts when they finish high school?

The odds suggest that he won't. This helps explain this basic set of Naep data:
Scores by percentile, American public schools
Grade 8 math, Naep, 2017

90th percentile: 332.44
75th percentile: 308.90
50th percentile: 281.67
25th percentile: 255.01
10th percentile: 232.10
Let's make sure we understand what those statistics mean:

On the most recent Naep math test, ten percent of the nation's eighth-graders scored above 332. But on the same test, ten percent of their classmates scored below 232!

Almost surely, those numbers define an enormous "achievement gap." The gap is so large that standard "rules of thumb" break down if we attempt to quantify the size of the gap.

In short, our nation's eighth-graders are not all alike. They can't all be taught the same "eighth-grade math," with a bit of extra help for those who are lagging a bit behind.

Those data define a basic reality found in our public schools—but so do the data shown below. These data describe the gains, not the gaps:
Gains in average scores, 1996-2017
American public schools, Grade 8 math, Naep

White kids: 12.66 points
Black kids: 20.32 points
Hispanic kids: 19.31 points
Asian-American kids: 22.06 points (2000-2017)
The gaps on the Naep are huge. But the gains have also been very large. Consider Hispanic kids:

Applying a standard though very rough rule of thumb, Hispanic kids outperformed their forerunners by almost two academic years over the course of the 21 years encompassed by those data.

Those overall gains were being recorded even as schools were being challenged by deserving kids like Dayvin Mungia. Or by traumatized kids like Jakelin Raquek, just 4 years old, who "was making steady progress in her pre-K class until her father was arrested by immigration agents in front of her, and later deported."

Or by the child in Jackson, Wyoming who "constantly cried, worrying that his grandmother was going to be killed back in El Salvador and that he would never see his parents again." Those test scores rose in the manner described even as our public schools dealt with challenges like these.

What explains these various data, in which the gaps and the gains are both quite large? We have no idea! Our most lordly newspaper, the New York Times, assigns its public school reporting to vastly over-privileged children of the New York Times/Columbia class. They peddle their pleasing tribal fairy tales and commit journalistic scams.

They hand you dreck from the realm of the dream or the tale. Then too, we have The Atlantic, which doesn't seem able to quit scripting of the type shown below, gloomy headlines included:
WEXLER (8/19): Elementary Education Has Gone Terribly Wrong/In the early grades, U.S. schools value reading-comprehension skills over knowledge. The results are devastating, especially for poor kids.


As far back as 1977, early-elementary teachers spent more than twice as much time on reading as on science and social studies combined. But since 2001, when the federal No Child Left Behind legislation made standardized reading and math scores the yardstick for measuring progress, the time devoted to both subjects has only grown. In turn, the amount of time spent on social studies and science has plummeted—especially in schools where test scores are low.

And yet, despite the enormous expenditure of time and resources on reading, American children haven’t become better readers. For the past 20 years, only about a third of students have scored at or above the “proficient” level on national tests. For low-income and minority kids, the picture is especially bleak: Their average test scores are far below those of their more affluent, largely white peers—a phenomenon usually referred to as the achievement gap...
Is that gloomy headline accurate? Is it true that elementary education has "gone terribly wrong?"

That top headline is a throwback to the era of "education reform." During that era, every know-nothing journalistic halfwit recited this dystopian claim.

In this way, they pleased the nation's big-bucks "education reformers," while blowing past the basic educational data they'd neither reviewed nor surveyed. Most important of all by far, They Said What Everyone Else Did.

(To all intents and purposes, everyone agrees that the Naep is our one reliable domestic source of educational data. Everybody praises the Naep, but nobody seems to look at its data! For all Naep data, start here.)

Elementary Education Has Gone Terribly Wrong! It's hard to square that familiar, wonderfully gloomy claim with the Naep data posted above, but The Atlantic can't seem to quit this familiar old story-line.

The magazine also can't seem to quit Natalie Wexler, a former lawyer they drag out, every now and again, to repeat her gloomy claims.

In fairness to Wexler, she focuses on reading instruction, where the gains have been less large than in math. She may have perfectly sensible things to say about reading instruction.

But is it true, what The Atlantic has (once again) said? Is it true that American children "haven’t become better readers" over the past 42, 18 or 20 years?

Is it true that "Elementary Education Has Gone Terribly Wrong?"

As noted, the recorded gains in reading haven't matched those in math. If we're not mistaken, reading has proven to be "harder to teach" than math all around the world.

That doesn't mean that there have been no gains in reading at all. Here are the score gains on the Naep over the most recent measured 19-year span (the Naep tested math in 1996, reading in 1998):
Gains in average scores, 1998-2017
American public schools, Grade 8 reading, Naep

White kids: 5.49 points
Black kids: 6.35 points
Hispanic kids: 13.17 points
Asian-American kids: 16.08 points
Have Hispanic kids recorded no gains in reading? According to that standard, very rough rule of thumb, they gained more than one academic year, on average, over the course of those years.

They did so even as public schools dealt with challenges of the type described in Jordan's humane report.

That said, leave it to The Atlantic! "Elementary Education Has Gone Terribly Wrong," this venerable journal has once again pseudo-reported.

The conclusion we draw seems blindingly obvious:

At The Atlantic, as at The Times, no one cares about any of this, and no one ever has!

Still coming: More on our nation's (academic/journalistic) achievement gap, courtesy of Kevin Drum.

(Drum: "I feel like this stuff is manufactured in an underground factory somewhere and shipped out randomly to newspapers across the country." In this case, it was shipped from Harvard to yesterday's New York Times!)

No, we still can't explain the phenomena Drum describes in that post.


  1. It's still not clear if those people are immigrants or illegal border-crossers, dear Bob.

    Because you know, you zombies tend to pretend it's the same thing.

    The phrase "who crossed the border with her father" seems to indicate that they are in the country illegally, which explains why they live "with 10 other people in a house with just one bathroom", and which, of course, reliably predicts their future failures, in schooling and all other endeavors... Oh well...

  2. Somerby says: "Depending on what we mean by the term, it isn't likely that kids who start so far behind will ever be "catching up."

    This is nonsense. Only a longitudinal test can measure whether any child at one point in time catches up when measured at a later point in time. NAEP doesn't do that. But schools do follow kids throughout their academic career from elementary school to high school and college, if they go on. Kids can and do catch up. They can and do go on and have successful careers, raise families, have lives full of meaning. They are not throw away people who don't matter because they have problems during early childhood. Somerby is an ass to imply that they cannot catch up or do not have a chance at life. But we already know that Somerby is an ass. What we don't know is what his percentage is in saying hurtful things about immigrant children who are having problems through no fault of their own.

    1. Some do. Some don't. Probably most don't.

      It doesn't really matter. They're just tests. And how is Bob saying they should be thrown away? De-emphasize tests, I say.

    2. Bilingual parents often wonder whether they should raise their children to be bilingual or speak only English in the home. There are many studies of bilingual language learning. Children who hear two languages during their early childhoods are delayed in their language acquisition, but they do catch up and they have not only larger vocabularies in both languages, but because of the need for code-switching (using the appropriate language in the appropriate context) they acquire a cognitive flexibility that monolingual speakers do not have, and that transfers to other aspects of cognition. So they ultimately benefit, not only from being competent in two languages, but from that extra cognitive flexibility that helps them in other cognitive tasks, not just language processing.

      I wonder how many people know about this. It makes Somerby's simple-minded question about "catching up" seem foolish. His idea that learning is a race and that the car that starts soonest gets across the finish line first, is ridiculous because learning doesn't work anything like that. For example, richness of experience contributes to understanding because when a child hears about something they have a reference point for the words that helps them not only attach meaning to what they hear, but remember it later. Immigrant kids have the richness of having lived in and passed through multiple cultures. They may be unfamiliar with their new neighborhoods, but they have a wider experience of more of the world than the kids they are joining in their new classes. This may or may not help on tests, but it definitely helps in lifelong learning.

      The more Somerby talks about education, the more he reveals how little he understands about learning.

      Many of today's immigrant Asian kids have lived in several different countries on their way to the USA. Most speak several Asian languages in addition to English. They have adjusted to many new circumstances. That gives them an edge in learning new things and that, not genetics, may be at the heart of their advantage in school, independent of the cultural emphasis on education in Asian families.

      Somerby keeps talking about NAEP because it is all he knows and he is a broken record. It is sad when an older person stops learning and stops thinking. The most disadvantaged immigrants have surely caught up to him and no one is telling Somerby he needs to go away and stop polluting Baltimore.

  3. Living in New York but coming from California, I am constantly amazed at how so many of these young people from East Coast elitist colleges are so clearly out of touch.

    It's especially funny to hear them talk about what life was like in the 60s and 70s, especially when it comes to sexual behavior. They have NOT a clue.

  4. Somerby seems to be unaware that schools do not have to include immigrant kids with low English language abilities in their NAEP testing.

  5. What is the point of this post?

    If it’s to say that the test scores for a random group of students describe a normal distribution, then that is saying nothing more than the most blindingly obvious fact about test scores.

    If it’s to say that the odds are that students who score in the tenth percentile can’t “catch up”, that is problematical. First of all, simply showing the NAEP numbers doesn’t prove or validate this assertion in the slightest. It’s certainly possible that a student scoring in the tenth percentile one year might score in a higher percentile the next year, given the proper circumstances.

    As to the specific case of the little boy, we don’t know that boy’s test scores or abilities, so it seems wrong to calculate his odds of “catching up” as close to zero without further information in his specific case.

    If Somerby is saying that not all eighth-graders can be taught the same eighth-grade math, even with help, then it isn’t clear what they should be learning in eighth grade, or how teachers and schools should be addressing that. You don’t stop trying to teach them. Plus, some students are slower learners, or respond to different methods of teaching. It doesn’t mean they can’t handle the subject. After all, no teacher says “Johnny is too dumb to learn to read, so there’s no point in trying.”

    We keep wondering what Somerby did in his own classroom, given the range of achievement levels he must have been faced with. He had no training in teaching, he was a philosophy major from Harvard. Did he learn some useful techniques that he might share with us, rather than, after all of this time and 20 years of blogging, to come up with nothing better than “What explains these various data, in which the gaps and the gains are both quite large? We have no idea!”

  6. A fact that Somerby fails to mention is that NAEP does not track individual student performance. It doesn’t even track the performance of individual schools. The lowest level for which it gives information is “TUDA”, or trial urban district, a set of cities and urban areas defined by NAEP. Otherwise, the data only applies at the state level. It’s never been clear how teachers or schools can use NAEP to determine teaching methods at their specific schools or in their classrooms, let alone for individual students.

  7. These are problems that Hickenlooper can fix.

    Hickenlooper 2020. Represent.

  8. According to the National Agency on Word Usage (NAWU), one of the new proposals for additions to the American English language for the year 2020 is the word "fannyburp."

    The reasoning is that this term is not so vulgar as "fart" or "pass gas" or "break wind."

    Just thought I would share.

    Fanny Mann

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