Also, does anyone care?: Yesterday morning, the Washington Post ran two education reports across the top of page 3.
On the left of the page, the longer report dealt with a relatively pointless topic—average nationwide SAT scores.
To his credit, Nick Anderson explained why you can't sensibly compare such scores from one year to the next given the increasing number of lower-income kids who are taking the test each year.
Given this fact, we aren't sure why the Post keeps reporting those annual scores! That said, no paper is perfect.
That longer report dealt with a rather trivial topic. Right beside it, the shorter report dealt with a topic of giant importance—the very large racial and ethnic "achievement gaps" on display, across the nation, in our public schools.
What can we do to reduce or eliminate these punishing gaps? And by the way, just how large are these gaps? These are very important questions—and they're typically bungled, or ignored, by the upper-end press.
The Post's second report, by Laura Meckler, dealt with a new study by Stanford's Sean Reardon. Below, you see the two headlines which sat atop the report, and its puzzling opening paragraph:
MECKLER (9/24/19): Study: Poverty is driving racial gap in test scoresSay what? Concentrations of poverty "entirely account" for those very large gaps? Could that possibly be true? And of course, much more significantly, what could that possibly mean?
Segregation concentrates minorities in less-effective schools, researchers find
High concentrations of poverty, not racial segregation, entirely account for the racial achievement gap in U.S. schools, a new study finds.
Remember—we're speaking about achievement gaps which seem to be quite large.
Major newspapers and liberal news orgs almost never discuss this awkward topic, or the interests of the good, decent kids who lie on the short end of those gaps. But here you see one such gap, with data drawn from our one reliable domestic testing program:
Average scores, Grade 8 mathBased on a standard but very rough rule of thumb, the average black student was three years behind the average white student by the end of eighth grade, according to this math test. Asian kids were even farther ahead. Stating the obvious, those seem to be punishing gaps.
U.S. public schools, Naep 2017
White kids: 292.16
Black kids: 259.60
Hispanic kids: 268.49
Asian-American kids: 309.52
Those data seem to define punishing racial achievement gaps. But according to Meckler's opening paragraph, high concentrations of poverty "entirely account for" such gaps.
Yesterday morning, when we read this report, we wondered if that claim could really be true. But we also wondered about something more basic:
We wondered what that claim was actually supposed to mean.
What was actually being claimed at the start of this report? We continued to read, hoping to get more clear about what this new study had found.
Below, you see Meckler's first three paragraphs. In our view, these first three paragraphs make no discernible sense:
MECKLER: High concentrations of poverty, not racial segregation, entirely account for the racial achievement gap in U.S. schools, a new study finds.So far, does this make sense? So far, does it make sense to claim that something new has been discovered by the Reardon study?
The research, released Monday, looked at the achievement gap between white students, who tend to have higher scores, and black and Hispanic students, who tend to have lower scores. Researchers with Stanford University wanted to know whether those gaps are driven by widespread segregation in schools or something else.
They found that the gaps were “completely accounted for” by poverty, with students in high-poverty schools performing worse than those from schools with children from wealthier families.
Citizens, please! Everyone has always known that "students in high-poverty schools perform worse [on average] than those from schools with children from wealthier families."
Everyone has always known that! So far, we have no idea what Reardon's new study claims to have found—nor did the matter become much clearer as Meckler's report continued:
MECKLER (continuing directly): “Racial segregation appears to be harmful because it concentrates minority students in high-poverty schools, which are, on average, less effective than lower-poverty schools,” concluded the paper by academics, led by Sean F. Reardon, professor of poverty and inequality in education and senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research.Every school district with even moderately high segregation had a large achievement gap?
The study examined scores from hundreds of millions of tests over the past decade by students in thousands of school districts. Researchers found a “very strong link” between racial school segregation and academic achievement gaps. Every school district with “even moderately high” segregation had a large achievement gap, they found.
It isn't clear what Reardon means by "segregation" in this context. Presumably, he means that black and Hispanic kids often attend schools whose student bodies are largely, or even entirely, black and Hispanic.
Such schools will typically have more kids from low-income families than the average American school. And it's true that "high-poverty schools" produce much lower achievement levels, on average, than "lower-poverty schools."
That said, these are facts which everyone has known since the dawn of time. Meanwhile, can anyone name any school district which doesn't "have a large achievement gap?" Is Reardon saying that a school district without "racial segregation"—whatever that murky term is supposed to means in this context—wouldn't display any racial achievement gap at all?
Based on what Meckler has written so far, it's very, very hard to know what Reardon's new study is claiming. Is he claiming that a school district without any "racial segregation" (however defined) wouldn't have any racial achievement gap? Could that be what Reardon means?
While we're trying to puzzle this out, let's take things a bit further. Does Reardon mean that low-income black kids in such a school district would score as high, on average, as that district's high-income white kids? Is that the claim this new study is making?
Is that the claim Reardon's study is making? That notion strikes us as a pipe dream. But then again, that may not be what Reardon is claiming. At this point, we simply can't tell from Meckler's murky reporting.
Truth to tell, we don't have the slightest idea what Reardon is actually claiming. Neither did anyone else who read Meckler's report in the Post.
Before Meckler's report is done, she paraphrases Reardon as he tries to flesh out his basic point. Below, you see the way Reardon is characterized—but we still don't know what this means:
MECKLER: In an interview, Reardon explained that a district such as Atlanta has high racial segregation, with white students in generally wealthier schools than black students, and it also has high racial achievement gaps. But in Detroit, where all the students tend to be poor, the achievement gaps are smaller, he said.Are the racial achievement gaps smaller in Detroit? We would assume that they are—but then, Atlanta and Detroit are vastly different school districts.
As in D.C., the Atlanta system retains a core of upper-income white students. Detroit, whose student enrollment is only 2% white, apparently doesn't. (In Detroit, "all the students tend to be poor," according to Meckler's report.)
We'll assume that Professor Reardon knows what he's talking about. But based on those basic demographics, we don't know why we would be surprised to learn that a city like Atlanta (or D.C.), which retains a core of high-income white kids, would have larger racial achievement gaps than a city like Detroit, where even the white kids are poor.
Alas! After reading Meckler's report, we don't have the slightest idea what Reardon could be claiming. Truth to tell, we still don't know after reading Kevin Drum's attempt to translate through the use of types of statistics no one understands.
What exactly is being claimed by Reardon's new report? In particular, is Reardon claiming that racial gaps would disappear if our public schools were all "integrated" in some way which remains undefined?
We find that very hard to believe. But is that even what Reardon is claiming? After reading Meckler's report, we have no idea.
We offer two basic thoughts:
Typical education reporting: Meckler's report is typical upper-end education reporting.
Through no fault of her own, Meckler isn't an education specialist. In this case, she seems over-matched by this assignment.
This is very typical of education reporting in the Post and especially in the New York Times. In our view, our big newspapers show their disdain for low-income kids when they staff themselves this way.
Typical novelization: Based on Meckler's report, a Post reader might walk away thinking the following:
If we just get rid of public school "segregation" (of a sort which goes undefined), those racial achievement gaps would disappear. That strikes us as highly unlikely, but that seems to be what Meckler says Reardon is claiming.
The white liberal world has been playing this "simple solution" game for more than fifty years now. At various times, the simple solution fairy tale has taken different forms:
If white teachers will only go into urban schools and smile at the kids, those kids will soon be writing novels.
If Teach for America can get enough Princeton grads into low-income schools, the results will be fantastic.
If we pursue the type of "education reform" in which we "raise expectations" and trash teachers unions—and now, if we eliminate "segregation" in some undefined way—those achievement gaps will disappear!
All these feel-good novelized stories served to reassure white liberals. These stories tell us that those gaps are more illusory than real—that they could be eliminated in one fell swoop if some simple solution were pursued.
Those stories say that our brutal racial history actually hasn't created a large and difficult problem. It seems to us that this feel-good story is wrong, but upper-class journalists have always seemed to find this notion reassuring.
These simple stories make us feel that success is just one simple solution away. We always think of Chekhov's tragic, struggling lovers when we liberals behave this way.
"And it seemed to them that in only a few more minutes a solution would be found and a new, beautiful life would begin..."
So Chekhov wrote about his lovers. When we liberals behave this way, it seems to us that we're showing how little we care about the low-income kids who can be found on the short end of those large and punishing gaps.
Tomorrow: On to the state of "segregation" in the D.C. schools
The fuller passage: The last paragraph of The Lady with the Lapdog, as translated by David Magarshack:
"And it seemed to them that in only a few more minutes a solution would be found and a new, beautiful life would begin; but both of them knew very well that the end was still a long, long way away and that the most complicated and difficult part was only just beginning."