THE LETTERS: Fabulous Finland must be praised!


An embarrassment of letters:
In December 2019, the New York Times attempted two substantial presentations about the current state of American public schools.

Bad news! On December 3, the Times presented a front-page report about the 2019 Pisa scores. In print editions, the gloomy report appeared beneath this headline:
School Reforms Fail to Lift U.S. On Global Test
Oof! The Times' front page report painted a gloomy picture about the state of American schools.

On the other hand, good news! On December 6, the Times published this upbeat opinion column. The column included a type of information which is rarely allowed to appear in major American newspapers.

According to the opinion column, Mississippi's fourth-graders have been recording large score gains in reading on the Naep. Online, the column appears beneath this upbeat headline:
There Is a Right Way to Teach Reading, and Mississippi Knows It
The column offered a somewhat implausible explanation for the apparent good news from this high-poverty state. Mississippi began stressing phonics instruction in 2013, and that's when the reading scores rose. According to this upbeat column, that's the right way to teach reading!

The nation was "stagnant" and "disappointing;" Mississippi was on the rise. So the Times had reported.

On Sunday, December 22, the Times published a set of nine letters in which readers discussed these two presentations. Inevitably, as if by law, one of the letters described the educational greatness of fabulous Finland:
LETTERS TO THE NEW YORK TIMES (12/22/19): The stagnant results of the international PISA exam have spoken: An extensive overhaul in the American education system is desperately needed. Although myriad troubles plague American schools—from lack of support for immigrant students to inequalities between schools—part of the solution may lie in one of the countries that outperformed us on the PISA exam: Finland.

Our country has sought to boost test scores by introducing a multitude of standardized tests,
essentially forcing teachers to center their class around preparing for these tests rather than teaching their students foundational skills. In Finnish schools, students are subject to almost no standardized tests, yet Finnish students surpassed American students in the PISA exam.

In our desperation to improve academic achievement, our country has fostered a culture obsessed with test results, yet, ironically, this fixation only serves as a detriment to America’s academic performance on the international stage.

R— J—
Fairfax, Virginia
"In our desperation," we've overtested—and fabulous Finland has not! This seems to explain why miraculous Finland "outperformed us on the Pisa."

Finland—a small, middle-class, unicultural nation—did outperform us on the Pisa. Or at least, Finland achieved this distinction depending on the way you choose to evaluate basic Pisa data.

That said, did Finland "outperform us on the Pisa" because we've been testing too much? Almost surely, that isn't the case. Indeed, it isn't even all that clear that Finland's schools outperformed our own schools at all, depending on the way you choose to analyze Pisa data.

Did Finland's miraculous schools really outperform our own? Tomorrow, we'll show you why we aren't hugely inclined to adopt that sweeping assessment. We'll also show you why that assessment tends to misdirect our view—tends to direct our attention away from The Very Large Problem We Actually Do Face.

For today, let's make a few notes about the nine letters the New York Times chose to publish:

On balance, we'd say those letters constitute a major embarrassment. On balance, we'd say they constitute an indictment of our upper-end journalistic discourse, not of our public schools.

We'd say those letters were an embarrassment. What was their general thrust?

The first seven letters all responded to the Times' front-page report about the 2019 Pisa scores. All seven adopted the gloomy assessment which suffused that front-page report.

All seven writers seemed to accept the assessment the Times had dispensed. In the letter we've posted, the writer declared that "an extensive overhaul" of our education system "is desperately needed."

As a general matter, these seven writers tended to agree with this sweeping assessment, though they offered a wide array of explanations concerning what has gone wrong. The letter we've posted deserves special treatment because of the fidelity it displays to a treasured journalistic script.

All hail mighty Finland! In the year 2000, Finland scored surprisingly well on the initial Pisa tests. In so doing, Finland became the instant poster child of bungled educational assessment.

For reasons we'll touch on tomorrow, Finland's star has lost a bit of its shine in recent years. But upper-end journalistic law still seems to hold that a selection of letters like these must include a paean to miraculous Finland, a small, middle-class, unicultural nation which faces none of the educational challenges larger nations may confront.

All hail wondrous Finland! According to the letter we've posted, Finland "outperformed us on the Pisa" because we conduct too much testing in our schools and fabulous Finland doesn't.

It may well be that our public schools do conduct too much testing. But to what extent did mighty Finland really prevail on this year's Pisa tests? To what extent did fabulous Finland outperform the U.S. at all?

Tomorrow, we'll take a look at the record, employing just the tiniest bit of statistical sophistication. When we do, it seems to us that our actual problem swims into view, while a sweeping indictment of U.S. schools (surprisingly) disappears.

In our view, those nine letters in the Times are an embarrassment, but they're also a road map. While decrying the failure of American schools, they actually display the familiar dumbness of our upper-end journalistic discourse.

Is something hopelessly wrong with "our educational system?" Is something hopelessly wrong across the board—possibly caused by too much testing, to cite one familiar villain? If we just made a change in our testing procedures, would our test scores on the Pisa match those of wonderful Finland?

Praise for Finland has been required ever since the first Pisa tests. So has the upper-end journalistic incompetence which helps define the state of our failing nation in this, the third year of Donald J. Trump.

Tomorrow: Miraculous Finland outperformed

After that: Mississippi (not actually) rising

FROM THE "MISSISSIPPI MUDDLE" FILE: Digest of reports (to date)!


Starting tomorrow, The Letters:
Before the Christmas break, we examined a somewhat peculiar report in the New York Times. The article in question reported, then attempted to explain, Mississippi's rising scores on the Grade 4 Naep reading test.

To be more precise, the "report" to which we refer was an opinion column. Its author offered a somewhat implausible explanation for the rising scores, which she'd failed to disaggregate.

In short, all standard markers of journalistic incompetence were present and accounted for in this bungled column. To date, our reports on this "Mississippi muddle" have gone exactly like this:
Tuesday, December 17: Naep scores rise in Mississippi! Information allowed to escape!

Wednesday, December 18: Those score gains are larger than reported! Let's disaggregate.

Thursday, December 19:
What explains Mississippi's score gains? Scribe's answer should break all our hearts.

Friday, December 20:
At the Times, this counts as "cognitive science!" In the end, nobody cares.
On December 21, we also posed this question: "Is there any possibility that Mississippi's surprising Grade 4 scores could be statistically bogus?"

Before this week's reports are done, we'll answer that question: Yes!

We'll show you how astounding it is that the New York Times, allegedly our brightest newspaper, actually published that remarkably incompetent column, with its implausible explanation for Mississippi's score gains.


Starting tomorrow, we'll offer a series of reports entitled "The Letters." Working from these embarrassing letters in the December 22 New York Times, we'll examine several remaining questions about these recent articles in the New York Times.

Again, the recent articles in question are these:
1) The New York Times' bungled front-page report about the 2019 Pisa scores.

2) The bungled column about Mississippi's Naep scores which the Times haplessly published.
Also at issue is the embarrassing set of letters the New York Times published on December 22. Before leaving town to help Santa last week, we briefly reviewed them here.

Alas! In our view, those letters draw back the curtain on the utter haplessness of our failing public discourse. In fairness, anthropologists tell us that this is the best we can sensibly expect.

When it comes to public schools, how hapless is our national discourse? You're right when you say that nothing will change. But just for the sake of creating a record, we'll answer your question all week.

Christmas is widely said to be coming...


...and we on this campus believe it:
Under the circumstances, we're heading off for a family gathering. This will almost surely involve some good solid fun with our great pals of recent years, the inimitable Shopkins.

We don't expect to post this week. We'd like to tell you what we've learned about Lamar Jackson's actual yards-per-attempt rushing average, but we guess such matters can wait.

Happy holidays to you and yours. Hint:

It's amazing how much seventeen instances of "taking a knee" can change a YPA rushing figure!

For our earlier post: For our post from earlier today, you can just click here.

Letters concerning the Pisa and the Naep!


The empire crashes and burns:
Over the past two weeks, we've been writing about two bungled reports in the New York Times concerning the nation's schools.

On December 3, this gloomy front-page report discussed newly-released scores from last year's Pisa, a major international testing program.

On December 6, this upbeat opinion column attempted to explain surprisingly good reading scores achieved by Mississippi's fourth graders on this years Naep reading tests.

The front-page report was driven by gloom. The opinion column was built around a sense of possibility and uplift.

As is the norm at the New York Times, each piece was technically incompetent. On Sunday, the letters appeared.

Yesterday, in its Sunday editions,
the New York Times published nine letters about these recent reports. The letters appeared beneath a gloomy headline:
Why Education Reforms Aren’t Working
Seven of yesterday's letters concerned the gloomy news report on the Pisa. Two letters concerned the upbeat opinion column about Mississippi's Naep scores.

In each of the first eight letters, the writer uncritically accepted the assessments offered in the two reports in the Times:

The first seven letters uncritically accepted the gloomy idea that the recent Pisa results point to the overall failure of American public schools. The eighth letter accepted the upbeat though implausible claim that Mississippi's fourth graders are scoring well in reading because they began receiving phonics instruction after 2013.

The first seven letters all accepted the Times' misleading assessment of those Pisa results. The eighth letter accepted the Times' limited presentation and bungled assessment of the Mississippi reading scores.

Then came the final letter of the nine! The ninth letter blew a very large hole in the side of the assessment concerning Mississippi's Naep scores.

(For a preexisting essay on this topic from The Hechinger Report, you can just click here. For more information, click this.)

We'll be returning to these topics after a Christmas break. For today, we'll offer this:

None of these letters defined the actual shape of our (very large) national problem—a problem which is very clear if you simply disaggregate the scores achieved by American kids on last year's Pisa tests. The shape of this problem was disappeared in the New York Times's Pisa report.

The Times failed to disaggregate the Pisa scores, thereby disappearing the actual shape of the world.

Those Times reports, and those first eight letters, help define the overall state of our failing national discourse. In our view, if this is the best a major nation can do in discussing major policy areas, that nation has a very good chance of ending up with a Trump.

Those first eight letters are an embarrassment. So were the two reports in the Times on which the letters were based.

We'll return to these topics after Christmas. In our view, those Times reports, and those first eight letters, define the actual shape of The Problem Which Is Taking Us Down.

Last few issues concerning the Naep!


Plus, Giuliani Unhinged and Undone:
We've been reminded that Christmas will be observed on Christmas Day this year.

If Donald J. Trump is re-elected, we're reliably told that the holiday will be moved into the spring, where it will be conjoined with a new Robert E. Lee / Jackson Day. But at least for this year, the famous holiday will be observed next week, near the end of December.

With that in mind, operations have started to wind down on our sprawling campus. Concerning this week's discussion of the Naep, several questions must still be explored:

We need to explain the problems involved in making year-to-year, decade-to-decade comparisons involving the Grade 12 Naep. Beyond that, we need to explore a basic question:

Is there any possibility that Mississippi's surprising Grade 4 scores could be statistically bogus?

Also, one last point needs to be nailed down. That would concern the level of technical competence with which data from the Naep, the Pisa and the Timss are typically interpreted on the highest journalistic levels. This last topic will tell us a lot about "who we are" (in the anthropological sense) as we sit here, on the beach, awaiting Mister Trump's War.

Concerning the aforementioned Mister Trump, we note a description of the commander from Andrew Sullivan's most recent post. The description strikes us as apt:
SULLIVAN (12/20/19): The impeachment was inevitable because this president is so profoundly and uniquely unfit for the office he holds, so contemptuous of the constitutional democracy he took an oath to defend, and so corrupt in his core character that a crisis in the conflict between him and the rule of law was simply a matter of time. When you add to this a clear psychological deformation that can produce the astonishing, deluded letter he released this week in his own defense or the manic performance at his Michigan rally Wednesday night, it is staggering that it has taken this long. The man is clinically unwell, preternaturally corrupt, and instinctively hostile to the rule of law. In any other position, in any other field of life, he would have been fired years ago and urged to seek medical attention with respect to his mental health.
We'll disagree with Sullivan on one point. In our view, if a person is "clinically unwell" to the degree described in that passage, we'd say that trumps the additional claim that the person is also "corrupt."

We'd say that such a person is clinically unwell, full stop. At some point, a person who is mentally ill isn't responsible for his actions in the way the rest of us are.

That said, consider what Sullivan says in that passage. He says the reigning commander in chief is subject to "a psychological deformation" which leads him to produce "astonishing, deluded" claims and to engage in "manic performances."

He says the commander is "clinically unwell" to such an extent that, in any other field of endeavor, "he would have been fired years ago and urged to seek medical attention with respect to his mental health."

We can't call that wrong! Amazingly, though, the upper-end press corps still agrees, as it has done every step of the way, that it mustn't discuss this powerful person's apparent lack of mental health and his possible cognitive impairment.

Kevin Drum has asked this week if any human society has ever been able to come to terms with an oncoming environmental catastrophe. In its explicit refusal to discuss Donald J. Trump's psychological and cognitive health, the upper-end press corps has shown us that our species is strongly disinclined to confront at least one other type of visible disorder.

Rather plainly, the press corps plans to maintain this group silence right to the end of the game. Meanwhile, along came Giuliani this week, exhibiting his own craziest conduct to date.

Giuliani's performance was simply astounding. But this apparent craziness has been smoothed on cable too. Our multimillionaire TV stars simply aren't willing to go there. They've been told they mustn't discuss such matters, and their obedience skills are vast.

Future Anthropologists Huddled in Caves tell us this is simply the way our limited species was wired. They've discussed our species in the past tense, as they despondently do.

We'll finish our Naep reveries at some point next week. We'll also call your attention to two different ways Elizabeth Warren's ancestry issues were summarized yesterday—on the one hand, in the Washington Post, then too in the New York Times.

If Donald J. Trump is re-elected, will we eventually celebrate Christmas / Jackson / Lee Day? That's what we've been reliably told, though we can't swear the prediction is accurate.

At any rate, you can watch Giuliani's crazy behavior at this, the link we provided above. Most grotesquely, he's making his deeply crazy remarks in front of a bunch of students.

Is Giuliani crazy too? Well-mannered, obedient TV stars have been told that they must never ask.

MISSISSIPPI MUDDLE: At the Times, this looks like "cognitive science!"


In the end, nobody cares:
Viewed one way, the test scores in question are remarkably good.

Viewed from a different perspective, the test scores are very bad. Since no one actually cares about this, you'll see these test scores reported, and discussed, nowhere else.

Still and all, here they are. These are scores from Mississippi's public schools, and those of the nation as a whole, on the 2019 Naep:
Average scores, Grade 4 reading
Low-income students, 2019 Naep

Low-income black kids, Mississippi: 208.10
Low-income black kids, nationwide: 199.03

Low-income white kids, Mississippi: 223.61
Low-income white kids, nationwide: 215.05
As noted, those are the average scores for fourth-graders from low-income families. For all Naep data, start here.

On the undesirable side, you can see that low-income white kids in Mississippi outscored their low-income black counterparts by more than fifteen points. As you can see, roughly the same "achievement gap" obtains on a nationwide basis.

(By a very rough rule of thumb, ten points on the Naep scale is often equated to one academic year. Also this:

(In these statistics, "low income" is not a synonym for "poverty." "Low income" refers to kids who don't qualify for the federal lunch program. In theory, this includes kids whose family incomes may be roughly double the federal poverty standard.)

Whatever the ultimate story may be, Mississippi's low-income white kids outscored their black counterparts by a substantial margin. Having said that, the apparent good news in those test scores is this:

Within both groups of kids, Mississippi's fourth-graders outperformed their counterparts nationwide, by almost one full year. If these data from the Naep are real, a caring nation would presumably want to know why Mississippi's low-income kids have been whupping their peers nationwide.

A caring nation would want to know that. But as we've noted many times, we don't live in that nation.

This topic arose on December 6 in a New York Times opinion column. Online, the column appears beneath these eye-popping headlines:
There Is a Right Way to Teach Reading, and Mississippi Knows It
The state’s reliance on cognitive science explains why.
Those headlines may be a tiny bit pompous. But they capture the gist of the column.

According to Emily Hanford, Mississippi has been recording impressive score gains in reading because it knows the right way to teach the subject. The state has been relying on "cognitive science," the somewhat pompous sub-headline declares.

(Hanford never uses that term in her column.)

In her column, Hanford describes the "science of reading," adherence to which is letting Mississippi produce large gains in reading. In our view, Hanford deserves a lot of credit for drawing attention to Mississippi's reading scores, but her explanation of the state's apparent success is enough to break human hearts.

Oof! When Kevin Drum reviewed Hanford's work, he was underwhelmed by her theories. In our view, Drum seems to have missed the boat on the overall story here, but we agree with what he says in this passage:
DRUM (12/18/19): It turns out that this “science” of reading is twofold: kids have to learn how to decode letter sounds into words and then they have to understand what the words mean. This doesn’t sound especially revolutionary to me, but what do I know?
We'll go one step beyond what Drum writes, relying in part on this earlier column by Hanford, which we quote below:

Simply put, Hanford says that Mississippi is producing big score gains in reading because the state has told its teachers that they should teach phonics. To the extent that this theory could be true, it's enough to break everyone's heart.

Can it be true? Can it really be true that Mississippi achieved its large score gains of the past six years because it began teaching phonics?

Moving beyond the limited data reported by Hanford, can something else be true? Can it really be true that Mississippi's low-income kids are outperforming their peers nationwide, by almost one academic year, because they're being taught phonics and their nationwide peers are not?

Can that really be true? We give you our answer right here:

If that explains Mississippi's Grade 4 reading scores, we should all go weep in the yard. Because we taught fifth grade for seven full years, we'll call rank on Drum, ever so briefly, for a personal recollection:

We began teaching fifth grade in the Baltimore City Public Schools in the fall of 1969. Phonics was a basic part of the reading curriculum.

It amazes us to think that anyone would try to teach kids to read without making use of phonics. Why would anyone do that?

In fairness, everyone knows that many English language words can't exactly be "sounded out." Consider these one-syllable words, all of which contain -ough as their vowel component:
Five one-syllable words:
bough [bow]
cough [koff]
tough [tuff]
though [tho]
through [throo]
Those words all end in -ough, but the "ough" is pronounced five different ways. You can't really "sound out" words like that—but English crawls with other words which you can "sound out," like mass, pass, grass, class, lass.

Why would anyone try to teach reading without some use of phonics? In her heartbreaking column from last year, conspired to answer that question and proceeded to break all our hearts:
HANFORD (10/26/18): What have scientists figured out? First of all, while learning to talk is a natural process that occurs when children are surrounded by spoken language, learning to read is not. To become readers, kids need to learn how the words they know how to say connect to print on the page. They need explicit, systematic phonics instruction. There are hundreds of studies that back this up.

But talk to teachers and many will tell you they learned something different about how children learn to read in their teacher preparation programs.
Jennifer Rigney-Carroll, who completed a master’s degree in special education in 2016, told me she was taught that children “read naturally if they have access to books.” Jessica Root, an intervention specialist in Ohio, said she learned “you want to get” children “excited about what they’re reading, find books that they’re interested in, and just read, read, read.” Kathy Bast, an elementary school principal in Pennsylvania, learned the same thing. “It was just: Put literature in front of the kids, teach the story, and the children will learn how to read through exposure,” she said.

These ideas are rooted in beliefs about reading that were once commonly called “whole language” and that gained a lot of traction in the 1980s. Whole-language proponents dismissed the need for phonics. Reading is “the most natural activity in the world,” Frank Smith, one of the intellectual leaders of the whole-language movement, wrote. It “is only through reading that children learn to read. Trying to teach children to read by teaching them the sounds of letters is literally a meaningless activity.”
Frank Smith said we shouldn't teach phonics! Here's an impression we took away from a dozen years in and around the Baltimore City Schools—there are a million Frank Smiths out there.

In our experience, instructional fads were constantly sweeping through the public schools. "Whole language" may have been one of the larger of these movements—but later in that column, Hanford proceeded to break our hearts again:
HANFORD: It’s not just ignorance. There’s active resistance to the science, too. I interviewed a professor of literacy in Mississippi who told me she was “philosophically opposed” to phonics instruction. One of her colleagues told me she didn’t agree with the findings of reading scientists because “it’s their science.”

There is no excuse for this. Colleges of education have to start requiring that their faculties teach the science of reading. Children’s futures depend on it.
Good God. According to Hanford, she once interviewed a professor of literacy who was “philosophically opposed” to phonics!

Speaking of literacy, we don't even understand Hanford's account of the statement by that professor's colleague. But so it goes as our vastly limited species struggles to stay afloat.

For ourselves, we find it hard to believe that Mississippi's low-income fourth-graders are outpacing the nation by almost one year because they're being taught phonics and the rest of the nation's kids aren't.

That strikes us as highly unlikely. If it's true to any major extent, it's enough to break human hearts.

This brings us back to the basic structure of Hanford's recent opinion column—an opinion column which featured the kind of information to which you'll never be exposed in a New York Times news report.

Hanford's column involved real information about Mississippi's improving reading scores. You'll never see such information in a New York Times news report. Simply put, the Hamptons-based guild at the New York Times doesn't much seem to care about matters like that.

Judging from appearances, the Times will present the occasional news report or opinion column designed to give readers the impression that it's covering topics like this.

That said, the Times doesn't cover topics like this. We're aware of no earthly sign that anyone at the New York Times actually cares about low-income schools or about the good, decent kids found within them.

Having shared that impression, we're now forced to say this. To our eyes, Hanford's column was so lacking in expertise that it helps establish our overall point about the way low-income schools get covered at the upper ends of our press corps.

To her credit, Hanford did report an intriguing fact—Mississippi's fourth grade reading scores have been on the rise. For the final time, we post the passage in question:
HANFORD (12/6/19): The state’s performance in reading was especially notable...Fourth graders in Mississippi are now on par with the national average, reading as well or better than pupils in California, Texas, Michigan and 18 other states.


For years, everyone assumed Mississippi was at the bottom in reading because it was the poorest state in the nation. Mississippi is still the poorest state, but fourth graders there now read at the national average. While every other state’s fourth graders made no significant progress in reading on this year’s test, or lost ground, Mississippi’s fourth-grade reading scores are up by 10 points since 2013...
Hanford deserves credit for reporting a type of information which would never occasion a New York Times news report. That said, she displayed a lack of expertise which approaches a lack of competence.


A slight understatement: In reality, Mississippi’s fourth-grade reading scores are up by a bit over 10.8 points since 2013. That rounds off to eleven points, not to the ten points Hanford reported.

To appearances, Hanford said the gain was ten points because she only worked with whole numbers in reviewing the state's test scores. She ended up making a minor misstatement, but it stemmed from primitive statistical work.

More significantly:

What we have here is a failure to disaggregate: Hanford only said that Mississippi's kids are now "on par with" the national average. She didn't note a more remarkable fact—once you disaggregate scores in standard ways, both major groups of Mississippi fourth graders are scoring well above the national average.

That's a much more striking fact than the one she reports.

Also this:

The gains in math have been almost as large: In math, Mississippi's aggregate fourth grade score rose by 9.60 points from 2013 to 2019. That's almost as large as the aggregate score gain in reading. Improved reading skills may help boost math scores, but it seems odd to seek a reading-specific explanation for the gain in reading without noting that the score in math has risen by almost as much.

Judged by the slacker standards of the Times, Hanford's presentation was earth-shattering. Imagine! Imagine reporting a gain in someone's Naep scores! All across the mandated gloom of the mainstream press, that sort of thing just isn't done!

Judged by the slacker norms of the Times, this opinion column was loaded with intriguing information. But when we stop grading on the curve, Hanford's column seems hugely underwhelming.

The striking question which remains is the question she failed to bring forward. Why are Mississippi's different demographic groups substantially outscoring their peers nationwide?

A caring nation would want to know, but our nation just isn't like that. Our experts don't even disaggregate scores to see what's going on.

Our upper-end press corps is highly Potemkin. In particular, the New York Times routinely brings a low-IQ approach to the world of our low-income schools.

Graded on the curve, Hanford gets a straight A. Graded by the "rational animal" standard, we're inclined to say that her recent column is enough to break all our hearts.

What's going on in our low-income schools? It's clear that we'll never find out.

Tomorrow: Grade 12 data on the Naep. Also, is it possible that Mississippi's high test scores actually aren't really real?

Nicholas Kristof's least-read columns!


New York's most-read stories:
Our upcoming year is currently planned as The Year of Living Anthropologically.

In truth, we're looking for a way to get to The Lifetime of Living Post-Philosophically. We'd like to describe our "formal education" and the events which followed on that.

In the end, it would be an attempt to discuss Russell's Paradox (And What Came Next). In short, it would be an attempt to enjoy the unintentional humor of the upper-end philosophical world's ruminations on "the set of all sets"—even on the comically wonderful "set of all sets not members of themselves."

With the later Wittgenstein to follow!

We're so old that we can remember going through all that. Luckily, we stuck it out and emerged on the other side.

For today, we'll offer two links which may light the way to The Year of Living Anthropologically. One link will take you to Nicholas Kristof's new column. The other link will lead to a major reveal.

In his new column, Kristof describes his least-read columns of the past calendar year. Once we scrape away the misdirection, Kristof is sharing important trade secrets about us in the readership class.

By way of contrast, this link will take you to a listing of New York magazine's "20 Most-Read Stories in 2019." And yes, that's the word they used.

They call their essays, profiles and news reports "stories." At least they're being honest!

Kristof's column lets us know what we readers weren't willing to read. That jaw-dropping post at New York reveals what we turned to instead.

In our nation's upcoming, dangerous Year of Living Trumpishly, there's little left but anthropology as we wait on the beach for the end. Aristotle's error to the side, what were we humans actually like in the years before Mister Trump's War?

Kristof explains what we just wouldn't read. New York reveals what we did.

With assistance from Cassandra, daughter of Priam and Hecuba

Cuomo leads lurid segment on crime!


Hysterical rants never sleep:
All killings are horrible. A recent killing in New York City was perhaps especially horrible because the victim, and the three apparent perpetrators, were all very young.

The victim was just 18. Based on current reporting, it seems that the perpetrators were all 13 or 14. This report in this morning's New York Times seems to represent the current state of the press corps' knowledge about this horrible killing.

The killing of Tessa Majors, age 18, has received a great deal of attention, as is perfectly appropriate. Unfortunately, it triggered a very strange discussion on Tuesday night's Cuomo Prime Time.

The strangeness of this discussion started with Cuomo, a generally sensible person. He kicked off the segment like this:
CUOMO (12/17/19): All right, we have new details tonight. I don't know if you've heard about this. It just happened last week, Wednesday.

This Barnard College, that's Columbia University, a freshman named Tessa Majors, just starting school, up from Virginia, murdered. A Judge ruled today the case against a 13-year-old suspect will move forward.

Police say there are other teens involved. They think it's about three, right now, but they're not sure.

I've seen this happen before. And now they're getting surveillance video, and it's raising all kinds of questions about the depravity that's going on in this city, the rising crime rates that are across this country, and what makes kids do something like this.

Let's dig in. We have Paul Callan and Kris Mohandie. Now, Paul was involved in the Central Park Five. He represented a couple of the officers that were investigating the case that actually wound up reversing the findings, so he remembers that period very well.

But Paul, you know, you're a mentor of mine. Feel free to back me off it. But we know the rates are going up around the country. We know that in this city, we're seeing it. We know that homicide is even ticking up.

But a crime like this, when is the last time you heard of 13- and 14- year-olds knifing somebody this way? When the 13-year-old described it, people in the court couldn't even take it.

CALLAN: Well, it's a horrible, horrible crime, and it sends shivers across New York City.
To our ear, Cuomo touched off a lurid discussion which bordered on the hysterical. To appearances, "the depravity that's going on in this city" had him doing that.

He kept returning to descriptions of the way kids of all racial descriptions actually were engaging in "wilding" during the era of the killing for which the Central Park Five were blamed. Based on one appalling event, he seemed to be suggesting that this "depravity" was now on the way back.

To our ear, the discussion was lurid, and disrespectful to the victim. At one point, the fellows offered this:
CUOMO: You know, Paul, here's the part that troubles me about this.

They're looking for two other young kids. They had one on Friday night, maybe that's the kid. Maybe they're looking for a third. They're a little soft on the numbers, and that's fine.

They can't find this kid. That's unusual to not find a kid that age. You know, they're vulnerable. They don't have resources and connections the way, you know, somebody who's connected to an organization or an adult might. What's your read on that?

CALLAN: It's very, very unusual.

And I have to say, Chris, the picture that was described by the 13- year-old, who has been apprehended, of the knife going into Tessa Majors repeatedly, and feathers flying from her coat—presumably she was wearing some kind of a down jacket, we'll find out later on—is just a haunting—

CUOMO: And her crying for help.

CALLAN: —horrific. Yes, crying.

CUOMO: The kids were aware of what she was going through. They made a decision.
To all appearances, Callan and and Cuomo are both sensible people. In our view, they each needed to show this victim a higher degree of respect.

We thought the overall tone of this discussion was appalling. But what made the segment even more striking was Cuomo's instant claim that this horrific event, and the "depravity" it contained, was just one instance in "the rising crime rates that are across this country."

Are there really "rising crime rates across the country?" In late September, the FBI released its annual crime report. The New York Times reported these basic findings:
WILLIAMS (10/1/19): Violent crime in the United States, including murders, declined in 2018 for a second consecutive year, according to F.B.I. data released on Monday. The murder rate dropped by 6 percent, affected by significant declines in killings in Baltimore and Chicago. At the same time, more rapes were reported nationwide.

Over all, the nation’s crime rate decreased by 6.5 percent, led by a 6.9 percent decline in the property crime rate. It was the 16th year in a row in which property crimes dropped, the F.B.I. said.

The decline in overall crime continues a decades-long trend but follows a two-year uptick in violent crime in 2015 and 2016 that raised concerns about the possibility of a broad shift in the pattern.

“This largely shows we are not standing on the precipice of a national crime wave,” Ames Grawert, senior counsel for the Justice Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, said of the latest crime statistics.
This seems to contradict Cuomo's assertion about the rising crime rates. Similarly, in this morning's report about this killing, the New York Tomes offers this account of the state of play in New York City itself:
RANSOM (12/19/19): The killing of Ms. Majors came as the city’s murder rate has reached a record low, and it has jarred the city and evoked an earlier era of high crime.
Has this horrible killing "evoked an earlier era of high crime?" It certainly seemed to do so on CNN as Cuomo made an unexplained, apparently inaccurate reference to "the rising crime rates that are across this country, and what makes kids do something like this."

The tone of this segment struck us as inappropriate and near-hysterical throughout. Oddly, Callan offered information about New York City's vastly reduced crime rates early on, then seemed to second Cuomo claim about a significant increase in violent crime:
CALLAN: Well it's a horrible, horrible crime, and it sends shivers across New York City.

And you're right. It brings back the memory of the Central Park Five case, which I represented two of the Assistant District Attorneys who reinvestigated the case, and found that the confessions were inaccurate, and the wrong people were arrested in that case. But that case terrified the city because it happened in a beloved park, and it really emphasized how dangerous the city had become.

And just to give you an indication, when I was a Homicide Assistant D.A. in Brooklyn, in the 1970s, the homicide rate was about 1,600 per year. It then peaked at over 2,000 per year in 1980.

Last year, you know what it was? It was 289 homicides. It had fallen to 289.

And now, police are saying that violent crime may be up as much as 25 percent in New York City. And you're right. It is a trend that we're seeing nationally.
Callan started by noting the remarkable drop in homicides in the last three or four decades. Then, turning on a dime, he seemed to support Cumo's suggestion that violent crime is on the rise again.

Is that true? Are police really saying "that violent crime may be up as much as 25 percent in New York City?" Is it true that this is "a trend that we're seeing nationally?"

Neither Callan nor Cuomo made any attempt to source or clarify these familiar scary claims. As for New York City, when we Googled, this report came up first:
CHAPMAN (7/8/19): Major crime in New York City reached a record low for the first half of 2019, but the number of shootings rose, police officials said Monday.

For the first six months of the year, the New York Police Department recorded 43,294 major crimes, which includes murders, rapes, large thefts and felony assaults. The figure is the lowest for the first six months of a year since the NYPD started tracking major crimes 1994.
The shootings were up by 7%. That's less than 25.

Cuomo strikes us as a thoroughly decent person. We were amazed by the lurid tone of this segment, and puzzled by the scary claims.

According to Neil Young, rust never sleeps. Rather plainly, neither does hysterical, unhelpful reaction to crime.

MISSISSIPPI MUDDLE: What explains Mississippi's score gains?


Scribe's answer should break all our hearts:
In the immortal words of the New York Times, the "perpetual laggards" in Mississippi have recorded large score gains in recent years in Grade 4 reading and math.

The gains in question have been recorded on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (the Naep), the widely-praised "gold standard" of domestic educational testing.

On December 6, this information was reported—where else?—in a New York Times opinion column. In print editions, the column appeared beneath a snide headline which bore the immortal words we have quoted above. See yesterday's report.

Indelicate language to the side, how big have those score gains been? The column was written by Emily Hanford, an education reporter for American Public Media. She only discussed the gains in reading, although, as we noted yesterday, Mississippi's gains in math in recent years have been just as large:
HANFORD (12/6/19): New results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a standardized test given every two years to measure fourth- and eighth-grade achievement in reading and math, show that Mississippi made more progress [from 2017 to 2019] than any other state.

The state’s performance in reading was especially notable...Fourth graders in Mississippi are now on par with the national average, reading as well or better than pupils in California, Texas, Michigan and 18 other states.


For years, everyone assumed Mississippi was at the bottom in reading because it was the poorest state in the nation. Mississippi is still the poorest state, but fourth graders there now read at the national average. While every other state’s fourth graders made no significant progress in reading on this year’s test, or lost ground, Mississippi’s fourth-grade reading scores are up by 10 points since 2013...
In fact, Mississippi's Grade 4 reading score is up by 10.8 points over that six-year span, and that rounds off to eleven.

Judged by a conventional though very rough rule of thumb, this suggests that Mississippi's fourth graders are now performing one full academic year ahead of their fourth-grade counterparts from the year 2013.

If true, that's remarkable progress. And as we noted yesterday, Mississippi's performance is even more impressive if you disaggregate scores on the basis of income and race:

Black fourth-graders in Mississippi didn't just match the national average as compared to their peers nationwide. They outperformed their peers nationwide by almost six points on the 2019 Naep reading test.

Among Mississippi's low-income kids, the achievement is even more striking. The state's low-income black fourth-graders outscored their peers nationwide by more than nine points—roughly speaking, by almost a full academic year. Meanwhile, the state's low-income white kids outscored their counterparts nationwide by 8.6 points.

On their face, those scores are quite impressive. They lead us to an obvious question:

In a state populated by so many laggards, what explains the large score gains, and the impressive overall performance?

Why are kids in Mississippi outscoring their peers nationwide? In her recent New York Times column, Hanford sought to answer that question, though only with respect to the gain in the state's reading scores.

As noted, Mississippi's gains in Grade 4 math have been equally large. We'll restrict ourselves to reading today, in line with Hanford's focus.

Why have Mississippi fourth graders showed large score gains in reading? Why are the state's racial/economic groups substantially outperforming their counterparts nationwide?

Hanford offers a somewhat high-fallutin' explanation. It's previewed in the pair of headlines which adorn her column online:
There Is a Right Way to Teach Reading, and Mississippi Knows It
The state’s reliance on cognitive science explains why.
Mississippi's public schools have been relying on cognitive science? What type of "cognitive science" can Hanford possibly have in mind? And can that be the explanation for the score gains in question?

What explains Mississippi's performance? To the extent that Hanford's explanation may be true, it should break all our hearts.

Below, you see the start of her explanation. We'll simplify later on:
HANFORD: What’s up in Mississippi? There’s no way to know for sure what causes increases in test scores, but Mississippi has been doing something notable: making sure all of its teachers understand the science of reading.

Yes, there is a science to how people read. For the past several decades, in labs and classrooms all over the world, scientists have been studying how skilled reading works, what children need to learn to become skilled readers, and what’s going on when students struggle. Reading is probably the most studied aspect of human learning.

But a lot of teachers don’t know this science. In 2013, legislators in Mississippi provided funding to start training the state’s teachers in the science of reading.
In 2013, Mississippi began "training [its] teachers in the science of reading," Hanford says at the end of that passage. From there, she proceeds to a somewhat wordy explanation of what that "cognitive science" tells us—though we'll note that, just as she never used the word "laggards," she also never employed the somewhat pompous term, "cognitive science."

Leave that to the side! Hanford does refer to "the science of reading," and she does strongly suggest that Mississippi's recent reliance on this science explains the rise in its reading scores—a rise she actually understates in the several ways we've discussed.

For our money, Hanford's account of "the science of reading" is hugely underwhelming. You can read her lengthy account for yourself, but this column from October 2018 makes her basic meaning fairly clear:

Hanford seems to be saying that Mississippi began teaching phonics in its schools, "and that has made all the difference," at least to the extent that such things can be explained. We'll explore that earlier column tomorrow, but that's pretty much where it leads.

Mississippi began teaching phonics? On that basis, Mississippi's low-income kid are now strongly outperforming their low-income counterparts nationwide?

Once again, we'll note the fact that the state's math scores have risen just as much as its reading scores have. But to what extent could Hanford's explanation possibly be accurate? Mississippi began teaching phonics, and that explains its surprising reading scores?

If true, that explanation should break all our hearts. We complete our rumination tomorrow.

Tomorrow: "It’s not just ignorance. There’s active resistance to the science, too."

Fun with numbers: Kevin Drum has been doing a bit of debunking of late. We can't tell you why.

With regard to those Mississippi scores, he offers this analysis quoted below. He does so as part of a wider critique with which we would generally agree:
DRUM (12/18/19): Mississippi’s 4th grade reading scores have been going up steadily since 1992. They increased eight points between 2002 and 2009 and then ten points between 2013 and 2019.
Fun with cherry-picking? The 2009 score which Drum uses as a benchmark was a bit of an outlier. It was the highest score the state had ever recorded in fourth grade reading, and the highest score the state would record until 2015.

For that reason, while Drum's statement is perfectly accurate, this presentation would be perfectly accurate too:
Mississippi’s 4th grade reading scores have been going up steadily since 1992, but only slowly until recent years. They increased just 5.7 points between 2002 and 2013, but then increased by 10.8 points between 2013 and 2019.
Putting it yet another way, Mississippi gained just 9 points from 1992 to 2013, a period of 21 years. The state then gained almost 11 points over the next six years. For what it's worth, that 11-point gain was accomplished as the national average was dropping by one point.

We agree with Drum when he finds Hanford's overall presentation underwhelming. That said, Mississippi's surprising scores do seem to call for an explanation, especially after adjustment for income and race.

Concerning our response to Drum on the Grade 12 Naep, that is yet to come. For today, Chris Cuomo's weird meltdown concerning an alleged increase in crime has earned our afternoon space.

Gloom about schools never sleeps. So too with strange rants about crime.

Jeff Asher explains a statistical problem!


Drum seems to mishandle Naep:
We were stunned by something we saw in this morning's New York Times.

Online, the report appears beneath the headlines shown below.
Incredibly, the writer turned out to be statistically competent. Could he possibly work for the Times?
South Bend and St. Louis, Where Crime Statistics Can Mislead
City limits can affect perceptions, and a criticism of Mayor Pete Buttigieg doesn’t hold up.
Say what? The New York Times was presenting an analysis of a potentially misleading type of crime statistic? It was even reporting that a certain criticism of Buttigieg's performance as mayor actually doesn't hold up?

Inevitably, it turns out that this report's statistically competent author doesn't seem to work for the Times. Online, the Times tells us this about that:
Jeff Asher is a crime analyst based in New Orleans and co-founder of AH Datalytics. You can follow him on Twitter at @Crimealytics.
As it seems to have turned out, Asher, being statistically savvy, doesn't work for the Times. As suggested above, we'd received that impression based on the apparent competence of his statistical work.

Asher's report concerns a potentially misleading aspect of the way big-city crime statistics can be compiled and reported. After Asher explains the statistical problem, a certain complaint about South Bend's murder rate under Mayor Pete pretty much disappears.

(Along the way, in the hard-copy Times, we were told to consult "the accompanying table"—an accompanying table which only appears online. Most likely, that error tracks to an editor who does work for the Times.)

As it turns out, the murder rate under Mayor Pete likely hasn't been as horrible as has been reported. We were happy to see this type of savvy statistical work because of a recent disappointment along statistical lines.

We refer to Kevin Drum's recent handling, or more likely his recent mishandling, of Grade 12 test score data from the Naep. Our favorite blogger put the data to traditional gloomy use in this recent post.

Absolutely nothing has worked in the public schools! In this case, Drum offered a variation on this familiar theme. He said that things have been working through Grade 8, but the gains are all gone by Grade 12.

It seems to us that we went over this statistical matter, in major detail, several years ago. We'll return to the topic tomorrow—but truly, when it comes to the public schools, the insistence on gloom, like Neil Young's rust, simply refuses to sleep.

MISSISSIPPI MUDDLE: Score gains larger than reported!


Let's take a look at the record:
In print editions, the New York Times wasn't especially delicate in its choice of words.

The Times was publishing an opinion column by Emily Hanford, senior education correspondent at American Public Media. And in her opinion column, Hanford was reporting some real information:

Over the course of the past six years (from 2013 through 2019), Mississippi's fourth graders have shown large score gains in reading! These gains have been recorded on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (Naep), the widely-praised "gold standard" of domestic educational testing.

"Mississippi is still the poorest state, but fourth graders there now read at the national average," Hanford wrote, referencing the state's average score on last year's Naep reading test.

"Mississippi’s fourth-grade reading scores are up by 10 points since 2013," Hanford went on to say, failing to offer a way to know if a gain of ten points should be seen as a lot or a little.

In fact, the score gain in question is slightly over 10.8 points—and that rounds off to eleven! And yes, if we credit those Naep data, that should be seen as a substantial, impressive gain.

According to a common but very rough rule of thumb, ten points on the Naep scale is often equated to one academic year. If we credit those Naep data, fourth-graders in Mississippi were roughly one full year ahead of their counterparts from 2013 on last year's reading test!

If real, that's a major gain. In print editions, the New York Times was none too delicate in the way it chose to headline the piece which was reporting this score gain.
Online, Hanford's column appears today under a highly flattering headline: "There Is a Right Way to Teach Reading, and Mississippi Knows It."

That headline flatters Mississippi, while possibly advancing a slightly peculiar thesis. In its print editions, though, the Times was a bit less delicate. In print editions on December 6, Hanford's column appeared beneath this somewhat indelicate head:
Perpetual Laggards Leap Ahead in Reading
Those perpetual laggards in Mississippi had staged a great leap forward! So it has sometimes tended to go when our self-assured Yankee tribe directs its perceptive gaze Southward.

In fairness, it isn't that the headline that day was "wrong." It was just perhaps a bit strong on the tribal aroma.

In fact, Mississippi, our poorest state, has long been one of the lowest-performing states on tests of reading and math. If the state's fourth-graders now match the national average in reading—if the state has made that much progress that fast—then that actually has been a great leap forward, one made by our laggard class!

Tomorrow, we'll start to look at Hanford's claims about the way this advance has been achieved. We find her thesis somewhat puzzling and somewhat depressing, though it may be perfectly accurate.

For today, we thought we'd fill in the background about Mississippi's ongoing gains on the Naep. In fact, the state's score gains are actually larger, and more widespread, than Hanford reports in her column.

How large have Mississippi's score gains been on the Naep? Today, we'll expand our field of view. We'll look at Mississippi's gains in both reading and math.

As we start, let's continue with fourth grade reading. How large have the score gains actually been?

As noted, Hanford reported a ten-point gain from 2013 to 2019, a gain which is really eleven. Most likely, she chose 2013 as her starting point because that was the state's worst performance on all recent Naep reading tests.

Having said that, whatever! How large have the gains really been?

As noted, the state's fourth-graders gained almost eleven points in reading over the six-year period to which Hanford referred. Nationwide, the fourth-grade reading score actually dropped by one point over that same period.

This allowed Mississippi to advance from twelve points below the national average to a state of virtual parity, all in just six years.

If real, that's a large advance! But Hanford is working with "aggregate" scores—with the average scores for all the fourth-graders of the state and the nation. If we "disaggregate" those scores—if we look at the gains recorded by the state's different demographic groups—the score gains, and the overall performance, are more impressive still.

Consider Mississippi's black fourth graders. Back in 2009, they scored slightly more than six points behind the nation's black kids, on average, on the Naep reading test.

By last year, that had changed. Last year, Mississippi's black fourth-graders outscored their black counterparts nationwide by something approaching six points:
Average scores, Grade 4 reading
Black kids, 2019 Naep

Mississippi: 208.61
United States: 202.96
Especially in such a low-income state, that's a striking advance and a striking performance. Mississippi's white fourth-graders matched their white peers across the nation last year, a surprising performance in a low-income state. But the state's black kids actually outperformed their peers nationwide, by a substantial margin.

Have we mentioned the fact that Mississippi is a low-income state? When we disaggregate by both income and race, the state's performance in fourth-grade reading again becomes more impressive.

How well did Mississippi's low-income fourth-graders perform on the Naep reading test? You're asking a very good question!

(Note! In federal education statistics, "low income" isn't a synonym for "poverty." Low-income kids are those who qualify for the federal lunch program. In theory, this means that their family incomes may be almost double the federal poverty rate. This is a very rough measure of income, but it's pretty much the only one we have.)

How well did low-income Mississippi kids perform on last year's Grade 4 reading test? Good lord! Low-income black kids outperformed their low-income peers nationwide by slightly more than nine points—by almost a full academic year:
Average scores, Grade 4 reading
Low-income black kids, 2019 Naep

Mississippi: 208.10
United States: 199.03
It wasn't just the black kids. Low-income white kids outscored their own low-income peers nationwide by slightly less than nine points. If we credit these Naep data, low-income kids in Mississippi are now strongly outscoring their low-income peers nationwide. And yes, this is a major change from the state's performance in the recent past.

Mississippi's fourth-graders did surprisingly well on last year's reading tests. After a bit of disaggregation, we'd say their performance was substantially stronger, and more surprising, than Hanford's column describes.

Having said that, let us also say this—Hanford only discussed the score gains on the Naep reading test. But when we look at the Naep math test, the impressive scores keep rolling along.

For today, how well did Mississippi's fourth-graders do on last year's Naep math test? In the aggregate, they outscored the nation by almost one point.

Given the poverty in the state, that's an impressive performance, and a break from the recent past. But when we disaggregate the state's fourth grade scores in math, the performance and score gains are just as strong as they were in reading, possibly somewhat better.

It isn't just that the state has "caught up" to the national average. In math as well as reading, different groups of Mississippi kids are whupping their peers nationwide:
Average scores, Grade 4 math
Black kids, 2019 Naep

Mississippi: 229.69
United States: 223.87
If we credit Mississippi's steady gains in math and reading on the Naep, something good seems to be happening in the state's public schools. You'd almost think a caring nation would want to know what's going on.

In fact, you'll never see such questions discussed in New York Times news reports. You'll never see such questions discussed on Tribal Cable, where the topic agenda goes like this:
Trump Trump Trump Trump Trump Trump Trump impeachment impeachment impeachment impeachment polls polls polls polls polls
In truth, no one cares about the kids of Mississippi, whether those kids are black or white, whether low-income or not. Hanford's column will come and go, having produced zero interest and even less debate and discussion.

Except here! Our discussion will shape up like this:

In her column, Hanford offered an explanation for the rise in Mississippi's reading scores. Her explanation may even be right—but if it is, she's describing a situation which is deeply depressing.

Are Mississippi's score gains real? If so, what has produced them?

Tomorrow, we'll start to look at Hanford's explanation—but you'll see this discussion nowhere else. In this, the age of Maddow and Trump, we can assure you of one thing:

No one in either tribe actually cares about any of this. Few facts could be more clear.

Tomorrow: The columnist's explanation

For all Naep data: For all Naep data, just start here.

From there, you're on your own.

Congratulations to Drum and Jones!


But also, Death by Woke:
Congratulations are due to Mother Jones for (what we assume to be) Kevin Drum's cover report.

In hard copy, Drum's essay will appear in the January/February issue. On line, Drum has now posted it under this headline:
We Need a Massive Climate War Effort—Now
Congratulations to Drum and to Jones for this lengthy essay. We'll also state what's merely obvious:

There's a very good chance that no such massive effort will ever take place. Speaking for several future experts, we congratulate Drum for the anthropological approach he takes at one point:
DRUM (12/17/19): Fifteen years ago, UCLA geography professor Jared Diamond wrote a book called Collapse. In it, he recounted a dozen examples of societies that faced imminent environmental catastrophes and failed to stop them. It’s not because they were ignorant about the problems they faced. The 18th-century indigenous inhabitants of Easter Island, Diamond argues, knew perfectly well that deforesting their land would lead to catas­trophe. They just couldn’t find the collective will to stop. Over and over, human civilizations have destroyed their environments because no one—no ruler, corporation, or government—was willing to give up their piece of it. We have overfished, overgrazed, overhunted, overmined, overpolluted, and overconsumed. We have destroyed our lifeblood rather than make even modest changes to our lifestyles.
We humans aren't wired in ways which let us stave off future catastrophes of this type. Anthropologically, the problem isn't that it's too late. The actual problem is that our species wasn't built for circumstances of this type.

That's one basic part of the problem. The other part of the problem is The Problem—the vast tribal division which currently afflicts our society (and others.)

Climate change is like everything else. Members of our different tribes have been told, and have believed, vastly different sets of facts about the situation.

This is The Problem which lies beneath all other current problems. This brings us back to the afternoon reports we said we'd deliver this week.

Those reports will all deal with what has long been derided as "political correctness." Going back several decades, that's a term we've never used. We've always felt that the term delivered vastly more heat than light.

In recent years, however, we've come to feel that our failing liberal/progressive tribe is succumbing to a related phenomenon. We'll call it "Death by Woke."

Death by Woke! It's a phenomenon in which perfectly valid, important concerns are treated in such ridiculous ways that members of the other tribe view us with understandable scorn and disdain.

Sometimes it's the spectacular dumbness with which members of our tribe approaches these valid, important concerns. Sometimes it's our tribe's deep desire to scold the others—to tell the others that they're deplorable, which seems to suggest that we aren't.

However we might conceive it, we've seen Death by Woke rushing forward in recent years in much the way Katherine Boo once viewed the phenomenon she described as Creeping Dowdism.

Boo issued her warning about Creeping Dowdism in the Washington Monthly in 1992. You can't see her lengthy essay on line. We'll guess that The Monthly came to see that Dowd was so well-connected that they probably shouldn't "show their work.".

Whatever! Within a few years, the Dowdism stopped creeping and started to gallop and surge. Eventually, it ate much of upper-end journalism whole.

Creeping Dowdism ate the mainstream press corps alive. The silliness of the modern New York Times is the fruit of that revolution. It seems to us that Death by Woke is advancing in much the same manner.

Congratulations to Drum and Jones for a voluminous discussion. But, reporting from the future, our own anthropological sources tell us the situation suffers from a version of "too little" even more than from a "too late."

Our very limited human wiring leaves us very poorly equipped for the challenge Drum describes. Meanwhile, within our own tribe, Death by Woke is making it harder and harder to imagine a time when we can get the tens of millions of Others to pay any attention to a single thing we say.

According to the future experts with whom we consult, our tribe has played a significant part in this. Tomorrow, we'll plan to return to recent mainstream examples of the onrushing killer disease known as Death by Woke.

We need a massive effort now? Thanks in part to Death by Woke, we'll guess that simply can't happen!

Fuller discourse on method: Much of our own current reporting is drawn from the work of Future Anthropologists Huddled in Caves, a disconsolate group of future scholars which reports to us from the years which follow the global conflagration they refer to as Mister Trump's War.

They report to us through the nocturnal submissions the haters refer to as dreams. Cassandra often seems to be present. The nature of the "war" to which the experts refer has never been fully described.

MISSISSIPPI MUDDLE: Naep scores rise in Mississippi!


Information allowed to escape:
On Friday morning, December 6, an opinion column in the New York Times included some actual information!

It was information of a type which is rarely allowed to appear in major American newspapers. According to Emily Hanford's opinion column, the public school kids of Mississippi have recorded substantial score gains in reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (the Naep)!

The federally-run Naep is the widely-praised "gold standard" of domestic educational testing. As we've noted in the past, everyone knows to praise the Naep, and to disappear its results.

The Naep has been in existence since the street-fighting year of 1969. At present, it's administered across the nation in odd-numbered years.

That's where Hanford's forbidden information comes in. She opened her column by noting that Mississippi is generally regarded as an educational backwater. Then, she offered some surprising facts:
HANFORD (12/6/19): New results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a standardized test given every two years to measure fourth- and eighth-grade achievement in reading and math, show that Mississippi made more progress [from 2017 to 2019] than any other state.

The state’s performance in reading was especially notable.
Mississippi was the only state in the nation to post significant gains on the fourth-grade reading test. Fourth graders in Mississippi are now on par with the national average, reading as well or better than pupils in California, Texas, Michigan and 18 other states.


For years, everyone assumed Mississippi was at the bottom in reading because it was the poorest state in the nation. Mississippi is still the poorest state, but fourth graders there now read at the national average. While every other state’s fourth graders made no significant progress in reading on this year’s test, or lost ground, Mississippi’s fourth-grade reading scores are up by 10 points since 2013...
The information provided by Hanford was indeed surprising. Just for the record, her factual claims were almost wholly accurate, if in our view a bit limited.

On last year's Naep reading test, Mississippi's fourth graders did indeed perform at the national average. And the state's fourth-grade reading score has indeed gone up by something resembling ten points—very roughly, by one academic year—since 2013.

In fact, Hanford slightly understated the actual size of the gain over those six years. When we look a little bit closer, the score gain rounds off to eleven points—from an average score of 208.52 in 2013 to 219.34 last year.

(For all Naep data, just start here. From there, you're on your own.)

On its face, Hanford was reporting some very good news. It's the kind of news which is almost never reported in newspapers like the Times.

Over the course of the past fifty years, American public school students have recorded large scores gains in both reading and math on the Naep. These score gains have been recorded at both the fourth and eighth grade levels.

That said:

As we've noted down through the years, American newspapers seem to agree that such score gains must never be reported. Readers of the New York Times are simply never told about those very large score gains. Similarly, the Times joined the Washington Post, just last week, in disappearing all sorts of good news from the newly-released 2018 Pisa scores.

(For links to our reports on that topic, you can just click here.)

These elites today! American elites of all types have long built their education reporting around a fictitious story line. That story line goes like this:
Absolutely nothing has worked in our pitiful public schools!
The deceptions involved in this reporting has been widespread and vast. Hanford broke every rule in the book when, in her opinion column, she included some actual information about some actual test score gains—large score gains recorded by fourth graders in our poorest state.

Who the heck is Emily Hanford, and on what basis is she allowed to report such information? According to the Times' identity line, Hanford "is the senior education correspondent for APM Reports."

The APM in question is American Public Media. According to the leading authority on the organization, APM "is the second largest producer and distributor of public radio programs in the United States after NPR."

APM is a major org. As we examine Hanford's overall column, that fact may imaginably serve to bring the note of sadness in.

Again, Hanford reported accurate facts about Mississippi test scores. She even reported large score gains, and that's a type of reporting which is almost never allowed.

That said, we couldn't help noting a certain lack of technical expertise in Hanford's reporting. In fact, the score gains in Mississippi are larger, and are more widespread, than Hanford's column reported.

If you "disaggregate" Mississippi's test scores—break them apart by ethnicity, race and income level—then the state's score gains in fourth grade reading are even larger, and more impressive, than Hanford reported.

Also this:

Over the course of the past ten years, Mississipi's fourth grade score gains are even larger in math! That's an especially striking point when you consider the pair of headlines which sit atop Hanford's column:
There Is a Right Way to Teach Reading, and Mississippi Knows It
The state’s reliance on cognitive science explains why.
According to Hanford, the gain in fourth grade reading scores can be attributed to the fact that Mississippi knows "the right way to teach reading," thanks to its "reliance of cognitive science."

Those claims may be accurate in some way and to some extent. But the state shows larger gains in math, a fact which goes unreported and unexplained in Hanford's unusual column.

Tomorrow, we'll show you how large Mississippi's fourth grade score gains actually are, in both reading and math. Then, as the week proceeds, we'll consider Hanford's explanation for the rise in the state's reading score.

If those Naep scores can be trusted, they suggest that something very good has been taking place in Mississippi's schools. You'd almost think a decent nation would want to know what that is.

Trust us—you'll never see any such question pursued in the New York Times' news reporting. And in this one instance, when Hanford was allowed to report some actual facts in her surprising opinion column, she offered an explanation of Mississippi's score gains in reading which seems, at least on its face, almost impossibly childish.

According to Hanford, the state has produced these large score gains in reading because it's been teaching phonics! Can that possibly be the explanation for those (apparently large) academic gains? We'll examine the topic all week—after which, you'll never hear a single word about it ever again.

At the top of the current societal pile, no one cares about public schools or about the low-income kids within them. No fact could be more blindingly obvious. No assertion could be more safe.

Tomorrow: An overview of the gains

Hanford's earlier column: When Hanford refers to "cognitive science," is she simply referring to the need to teach phonics?

Her new column is somewhat unclear on that point. It seems to us that this column from October 2018—"Why Are We Still Teaching Reading the Wring Way?"—makes her meaning fairly clear.

Barbara McQuade gets it right!


Three cheers for Barbara McQuade:
In the past few years of impeachment and The Chase, Barbara McQuade has become one of MSNBC's go-to legal experts.

In our view, she has occasionally seemed to be sliding into the propagandistic bubble which has come close to swallowing the cable channel whole. This very day, at New York magazine, she offers a clear assessment of the problems within the FBI which Inspector General Horowitz detailed last week.

The dumbnification of MSNBC has been underway for years. It's reassuring to see a mainstay of the channel maintaining her contact with sound procedure.

Dumbnification won't serve liberal/progressive interests. Dumbnification is deeply appealing, but dumbnification is bad.

Also this: Yesterday, Chris Wallace batted Jim Comey around. Three cheers for Chris Wallace!

Whatever happened to Candidate Harris?


A peculiar report in the Times:
Whatever happened to Candidate Kamala Harris? One week ago today, a peculiar report on this basic question appeared in the New York Times.

What the heck happened to Candidate Harris? Why did she fail to catch on?

What went wrong with the Harris campaign? At one point, Lerer and Medina offer this highly unflattering overview:
LERER AND MEDINA (12/P/19): Supporters acknowledge that many of the problems faced by Ms. Harris’s presidential campaign were self-inflicted, having little to do with her race or gender. They list failings like strategic miscalculations that had her ignoring Iowa and New Hampshire for the first months of the race, a lack of leadership within her operation and an inability to articulate a consistent rationale for her candidacy. Her critics argue that those missteps suggested to voters that Ms. Harris was unprepared for the presidency, lending credence to arguments questioning her electability.
Oof! According to that assessment, Harris committed the strategic blunder of ignoring Iowa and New Hampshire for the first months of the race.

She had a lack of leadership within her operation. Also, she wasn't able to articulate a consistent rationale for her candidacy. And that's what her supporters say!

According to Harris' critics, these bungles "suggested to voters that Ms. Harris was unprepared for the presidency." Question:

If voters got that impression from that list of problems, could anyone say they were wrong?

In our view, Lerer and Medina were perhaps being overly kind. They failed to list some of the specific mistakes which may have cost Harris support.

That said, their capsule assessment is plenty harsh. How many White House candidates have been successful if they ignored the first caucus and primary states while failing to articulate a rationale for their campaign?

We can't tell you why Harris didn't catch on with Democratic voters. Since we're discussing tens of milliona of people, we'll guess there were several reasons.

On the simplest level, we'd simply say that, after an impressive kick-off rally, it just seemed, again and again, that Harris simply wasn't ready for a White House campaign.

She wasn't hugely well known coming in. Once there, she often seemed under-prepared.

For ourselves, we thought Harris' opening rally was extremely impressive. That said, we were appalled by few of her subsequent steps. That included her attack on Candidate Biden at the first debate—her attack on him for opposing a policy in the 1970s which, just to be honest, Harris herself doesn't seem to support in the present day.

We're bone weary of hopefuls like that. We'll guess that her decline started there, after reflexive bursts of praise for her bold, heartfelt, completely authentic and truth-telling attack.

For the record, we think Biden is a terrible candidate in a field of terrible candidates. That said, Lerer and Medina offered a highly unflattering summary of the Harris campaign in the paragraph we've quoted—and that's just what her supporters have said!.

According to Lerer and Medina, the Harris campaign was a mess. That brings us to the part of their report which struck us as a bit peculiar—but also as a highly instructive artifact of the times.

According to Lerer and Medina, Harris made the large mistake of ignoring New Hampshire and Iowa. There was a lack of leadership within her operation. Beyond that, the candidate was unable "to articulate a consistent rationale for her candidacy."

Especially for a relative newcomer, that sounded like a list of sins which would derail almost any White House campaign. But the paragraph we've posted above was just one small part of a full-length report, in which the Times reporters tried to determine whether the real reason for Harris' failure might lie somewhere else.

Anyone familiar with modern-day TimesThink will know where the reporters looked. Their report was an attempt to determine why Candidate Harris didn't make it. We'd also say it might help us see why the crackpot Candidate Trump has a good chance to win once again.

As we consider a possible Trump re-election, are we possibly dealing with "death by woke?" We'll examine that possibility all this week in our afternoon reports, in which we examine an endless series of valid concerns gone wild.

Tomorrow: A rare point of widespread agreement

THE "MISREPORTED PISA SCORES" FILE: Digest of last week's reports!


Starting tomorrow, A Mississippi muddle:
American teens outperformed from their counterparts from the vast majority of the world's nations on last year's Pisa reading test.

Indeed, if they were viewed as separate nations unto themselves, our nation's white and Asian-American kids would have rated as the highest-scoring nations in the world!

Those are remarkable facts. That said, you would have had no awareness of any such facts in reading the recent news reports on the new Pisa scores in the Washington Post and the New York Times.

In accord with standard practice, the high-profile reports in those upper-end papers were conventionally gloomy. The reports were driven by factual claims which were grossly misleading and were sometimes flatly wrong.

So it has gone, for decades now, as our upper-end newspapers attempt to report, or pretend to report, on our nation's public schools and the children within them. Below, you see links to last week's reports from the "Standard Reporting on Standardized Tests" file:
Tuesday, December 10: You got to choose between gloomy and wrong! The Times and Post toyed with the PISA.

Wednesday, December 11: American kids were outscored by Macau! With other deceptions and trivia.

Thursday, December 12:
(Some) American kids are the best in the world! The problem we all choose to ignore.

Friday, December 13:
The Times ignores the nation's black kids! The problem we all disappear.
Tomorrow, we'll start a new set of reports on a related topic. Our reports will deal with striking score gains in the state of Mississippi, and with the peculiar reporting of same.

Here's the basic background:

Over the past ten years, Mississippi's fourth graders have recorded large score gains on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (Naep), the widely-praised "gold standard" of domestic educational testing.

The upper-end press corps has long made a point of refusing to report the large nationwide score gains recorded on the Naep over the past fifty years. In this recent opinion column, the New York Times inched toward breaking the code of silence which has long held that such score gains must never be reported or discussed.

That said, the recent column in the Times displays the peculiar ways test scores get reported and analyzed in the American press. Our press corps works on second-grade level even when it tries to deal with such basic statistics.

Mississippi's Naep scores have gone up in the past ten years—even more than that column reports! What lies behind these large score gains?

It's a true Mississippi muddle. Our reports begin tomorrow.

The opinion column in question: Far be it from the New York Times to report score gains like these in an actual news report! The opinion column to which we refer appears beneath these headlines:
There Is a Right Way to Teach Reading, and Mississippi Knows It
The state’s reliance on cognitive science explains why.
The statewide score gains in question are real. Indeed, the score gains go far beyond what that column reports.

There's a lot to unpack in this puzzling muddle. We'll get started tomorrow.

A final observation:
You'll see these topics discussed here and nowhere else. You'll see no one report or discuss the basic data from the Pisa which we presented last week.

The reason for this is blindingly obvious. No one actually cares about any of this—not Trump, not Rachel or Lawrence. When it comes to reporting on our public schools, it's fictitions all the way down.

It's preferred elite narrative all the way down. That isn't going to change. U.S. teens outscored the bulk of the world?

You aren't encouraged to know that.

The things you get told along the way!


In this case, RE Carter Page:
It's possible that your lizard brain won't like our topic today.

So it goes in this veil of tears! That said, we plan to continue with our rumination concerning the things you were told, along the way, concerning Carter Page.

We can't give you the full story concerning Carter Page. That said, it never seemed especially likely to us that he was part of some major intrigue. Beyond that, we often noted the way our favorite stars were spinning the facts about Page—for example, by playing brain-dead semantic games about his "meetings" with Russkie officials and about the "documents" he was said to have handed over to Russkie spies.

For various fairly obvious reasons, it never seemed real likely to us that Page was involved in a plot. That said, the report by Inspector General Michael Horowitz outlined the grotesque misbehavior in which some FBI employees engaged as they pursued surveillance on Page.

We humans! As everyone has always known, we need to learn to avoid jumping to tribally pleasing conclusions. Because our favorite TV stars kept assuring us that Page was a spy, it might be worth examining some of what we were told about Page along the way.

Let's start with this colloquy at Slate about the inspector general's report. In this exchange, Emily Bazelon and David Plotz describe what the FBI did:
BAZELON (12/13/19): The particular fact about the Carter Page FISA application that just floored me was that he had been giving information to the CIA for years, and they just left that out. This is the part that a government lawyer actually falsified in an email and could be criminally charged for. But just think about that. This guy who our government is surveilling without his knowledge, or really hardly any check on that power, it turns out was an intelligence asset for another agency, and the FBI just hid that information from the FISA court. That’s really bad. We should care about fixing those problems, and we should do something about the level of secrecy in these FISA proceedings.

PLOTZ: The fact that he was doing the CIA’s work was what allowed the FBI to gin up suspicion about him that justified the warrant. So it wasn’t just that they ignored it, it was that the actual work was the predicate for the warrant itself, which is outrageous. I’ve always assumed that the FBI has been playing fast and loose with FISA stuff, because even in legal proceedings where there two sides, the prosecutors are constantly engaged in chicanery. So when there’s only one side, and it’s secret and there’s no opponent? You knew that they were doing stuff that was shady.
Oof! Page had been a CIA informant for years (starting in 2008). According to the inspector general's report, the FBI was already aware of this fact at the time of their first application to the FISA court in October 2016 (see quote below).

The FBI already knew this, but they didn't include this information in their requests for surveillance of Page. Along the way, one Justice Department lawyer actually doctored a document in such a way that the FISA court was falsely told that Page wasn't a CIA source!

In the passage we've posted, Plotz says he isn't surprised by this conduct. He says that (some or many) prosecutors behave this way all the time.

This makes us think of the million times we saw former prosecutors tell us, on our favorite channels, that the FBI is just amazingly meticulous about the way they assemble their applications for a FISA warrant.

These former prosecutors have become TV stars in the years of The Chase. As time went along, we became increasingly unimpressed with their lock-them-up approach, in which they sift through our twenty million federal, state and local laws, looking for gimmicky ways to charge targeted persons with crimes.

In his report, Horowitz seems to say that FBI personnel did engage in deeply inappropriate conduct in their pursuit of Page. The last time we saw someone saying that, it was Devin Nunes!

How badly might the feds have behaved? At this point, we can't tell you that. For now, let's skip ahead to a front-page news report in the Washington Post.

The report appeared in April 2017. Starting with its opening paragraphs, here's part of what it said:
NAKASHIMA, BARRETT AND ENTOUS (4/11/17): The FBI obtained a secret court order in October 2016 to monitor the communications of a former adviser to presidential candidate Donald Trump, part of an investigation into possible links between Russia and the campaign, law enforcement and other U.S. officials said.

The FBI and the Justice Department obtained the warrant targeting Carter Page’s communications after convincing a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court judge that there was probable cause to believe Page was acting as an agent of a foreign power, in this case Russia, according to the officials.


The judges who rule on Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) requests oversee the nation’s most sensitive national security cases, and their warrants are some of the most closely guarded secrets in the world of U.S. law enforcement and intelligence gathering. Any FISA application has to be approved at the highest levels of the Justice Department and the FBI.

Applications for FISA warrants, [James] Comey said, are often thicker than his wrists, and that thickness represents all the work Justice Department attorneys and FBI agents have to do
to convince a judge that such surveillance is appropriate in an investigation.

The government’s application for the surveillance order targeting Page included a lengthy declaration that laid out investigators’ basis for believing that Page was an agent of the Russian government and knowingly engaged in clandestine intelligence activities on behalf of Moscow, officials said.
Inevitably, there was Comey—"Comey the God"—delivering a homespun version of the company line about how meticulous the gumshoes are in compiling their FISA applications.

The applications are "often thicker than his wrists," the establishment god was reported to have said. This same company line rang out from MSNBC on a regular basis.

Even back in the fall of 2016, the FBI had known about Page's background with the CIA. Despite this fact, the Post was now reporting exciting facts:

Back in October 2016, there had been "probable cause to believe Page was acting as an agent of Russia," unnamed officials had now said. Also, the FBI had believed at that time "that Page knowingly engaged in clandestine intelligence activities on behalf of Moscow," according to these unnamed officials.

Who knows? The FBI may even have believed such things back in 2016. After all, a person can be a CIA source and a Russkie spy at the same time.

That said, the FBI was aware of the fuller story involving Page and the CIA. But these exciting statements now appeared in the Post without any mention of same.

That night, on The One True Liberal Channel, it was "former Rhodes scholar gone wild." An unnamed cable news TV star went on and on, then on and on, about these new revelations.

On April 3, this unnamed star had already declared that Page had been "successfully recruited" by Russkie spies back in 2013. On this new occasion, she continued to mix her slippery "successfully recruited" formulation with fleeting references to the established fact that Page had been declared an "unwitting" target of those Russkies spies at that time.

Our favorite star seemed to be trying to keep her blend of insinuations and fact within the realm of what can be defended as "technical accuracy." Eventually though, interviewing one of the Post reporters, our favorite star told us this:
MADDOW (4/11/17): In that [2013] case, [Page] was described as essentially an unwitting target of those Russian spies. But what you guys are reporting tonight, I'll just quote here: “The government's application for the surveillance order targeting Page included a lengthy declaration that laid out the basis for believing he was an agent of the Russian government and that he knowingly engaged in clandestine intelligence activities on behalf of Moscow.”

So that would say he was not someone being used unwittingly but, rather, he knew what he was doing and that he was deliberately acting as a Russian agent.

ENTOUS: Yes. So, as you know, I mean, the bar is relatively high for trying to get one of these FISA warrants. And it requires the investigators to–and the prosecutors to make a case of probable cause. And so, the officials we spoke to described some of the aspects of that case.
The unnamed star accurately quoted the Post's front-page report. The Post reporter then went into the song and dance about how meticulous those FISA applications are.

Viewers of this cable news TV show were frequently propagandized about Page's status as a fairly obvious Russkie spy. The major star to whom we've referred displayed a familiar human skill in the course of advancing these representations:

She was skilled at taking everything which made us doubt this conclusion and turning it into evidence that Page really was a Russkie spy! True believers have displayed this particular human skill down through the annals of time.

It never seemed very likely to us that Page was a Russkie spy. On cable, we liberals tended to get the more pleasing story.

Whatever the full story might turn out to be, Horowitz was a bit of a killjoy this week. On the brighter side, we won't likely be told about that on our favorite TV programs.

"Trust but verify," Reagan once said. We strongly agree with that famous old bromide, except for the part about "trust."

Killjoy speaks: From the inspector general's report (page viii):
INSPECTOR GENERAL'S REPORT: Based upon the information known to the FBI in October 2016, the first [FISA] application contained the following seven significant inaccuracies and omissions:

1. Omitted information the FBI had obtained from another U.S. government agency detailing its prior relationship with Page, including that Page had been approved as an "operational contact" for the other agency from 2008 to 2013, and that Page had provided information to the other agency concerning his prior cont acts with certain Russian intelligence officers, one of which overlapped with facts asserted in the FISA application...
Along the way, we liberals were told a more pleasing story—on cable news, then in the Post.

We were offered the fruits of true belief. This made our nightly cable viewing simpler and much more fun.