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?


  1. “Also, is it possible that Mississippi's high test scores actually aren't really real?”


    (Sound that word out, Greg.

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

    Hanford indicates that phonics instruction fell out of favor in the US. Since this happened after Somerby left teaching more than 40 years ago, it may be amazing to him that this happened, but if he were better informed about current teaching practices, he wouldn’t be amazed.

    If he thinks phonics is important, then he should agree with Hanford that it ought to be taught in schools, rather than looked on as some antiquated, unenlightened teaching method from the old days.

    But his inclination is to find fault with her, because he doesn’t think phonics can explain the success in Mississippi, and just for grins, he wonders if the test results in Mississippi are real.

    It should be noted that Hanford isn’t saying phonics *by itself* is the answer. She clearly says in her recent column that it should be combined with other approaches (she calls it teaching “language comprehension” alongside phonics).

    There is plenty of research suggesting that teaching phonics leads to better reading outcomes, and that the improvement can happen fairly quickly.

    Somerby scoffs at the term “cognitive science” and also the term “science of reading.” But he, like Drum, is a numbers guy, as evidenced by his constant focus on the NAEP, and one would therefore think that he might be interested in scientific research into the effectiveness of various instructional techniques. How else can you know if a technique works, especially if you insist on measuring outcomes using test scores? Why does Somerby think he was teaching phonics back in 1969, if it wasn’t based on a theory of reading instruction, such as the one popularized in the 1950’s book “Why Johnny Can’t Read?”

    1. Noman, why would you acknowledge that Somerby wrote, “It amazes us to think that anyone would try to teach kids to read without making use of phonics. Why would anyone do that?” and go on to write “If he thinks phonics is important, then he should agree with Hanford that it ought to be taught in schools, rather than looked on as some antiquated, unenlightened teaching method from the old days.”

      You seem to be the one who always has a problem with Bob’s “misogyny,” and will take every opportunity to make it a fact, even though you have to do contortions that would make Linda Blair look like a piker.

      Maybe you’re the anon who likes to name itself after fauna. If you are, then maybe you should start using nyms that describe yourself as flora.


    2. Leroy, your comment makes no sense. Where did you get anything about misogyny from what I said? That is truly bizarre. The main point I was making about Somerby’s amazement that phonics isn’t being taught is that that is a well-known fact that he should be aware of.

      Why don’t you try actually dealing with the points I raised, rather than inventing criticisms that aren’t there?

      And, by the way, the nym is “Niemand”, not “Noman.”

    3. Cabbage. That should be your next nym.


    4. Leroy, did you actually have anything to say about Somerby’s post, or Hanford’s article, or my initial comment, other than insults? What did we learn from Somerby today, in your view? Did you read the linked material and think about it? I made a good faith effort to summarize my thoughts about this important topic and about Somerby’s post, and I did so without insulting him or calling him names. Do you believe Somerby hopes to spur thought and a conversation about this, and do you really think my post was indistinguishable from others accusing Somerby of misogyny? If you are unwilling to even entertain the slightest hint of what you perceive as criticism of Somerby’s post, then you are trying to shut down any discussion at all. Why don’t you offer your thoughts on today’s post, if you have any? Because your responses indicate ... you got nothin’.

  3. "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?"

    If Kevin Drum were to sit down with a child and approach teaching him or her to "decode" words, how would he start? What exactly would he do? Does Drum know what the word "decode" actually means? Or would he fall back on sounding out letters because that's what he was taught as a child?

    There is a science to this that is based on studying how to best and most effectively teach children to decode words. It is based on knowledge about what cognitive processes occur as we read, how the mind works to perceive and attach meaning to symbols such as letters and words, in the context of sentences and outside that context. That knowledge is part of what is meant by cognitive science, and it is an experimental field that relies on scientific method, not theories and fads about education. In fact, it has developed independent of what occurs in Schools of Education. It is an emerging discipline, not an extension of the old phonics that David in Cal remembers fondly.

    But what does Kevin drum know? And what does Somerby know. Not much. But any asshole can have an opinion these days.

    1. "But any asshole can have an opinion these days.

      Including the shroom-soaked 7:37. Thank Dog you don't have children, but I'm guessing. If you do... Dogspeed to them.


    2. What do you have against dogs?

    3. @7:37 - there's nothing new about trying to apply the scientific method to evaluate various approaches to teaching. It has been done, or attempted, for many years. From other things I have read, my impression is that education researchers have not always done a good job of applying the scientific method to evaluate educational approaches.

    4. You can't do learning experiments on children for ethical reasons. Research in education is correlational. It isn't right to blame education researchers for a problem that is not their fault.

      Cognitive science evolved out of behaviorist research methods with the addition of cognitive process models that can be tested using experiments that permit inference of processing from observed behavior. You can study how perception works and how language is learned without depriving any children of proper instruction by using lab experiments testing such models. The results are then used to develop teaching techniques based on how people read, not based on theories of education that have little empirical foundation. You figure out how to teach reading by understanding how people read.

    5. Stormy Daniels will take down Trump.

    6. D & C, do you have any Nazi websites to back up what you are saying here?

  4. I think Somerby was reticent to suggest that cheating might be the reason. Not student cheating, education administration cheating. What? Never heard of getting copies of a test ahead of time and teaching to specific questions? Happens all the time.

    1. You can’t do that with the NAEP, for Christ’s sake. Go read up on it. Why do you think they call it the gold standard????

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.


  6. Anonymous, I don't assume that there was cheating and I certainly don't want that to be the case in anywhere for anybody.

    I don't know if there could be some factor at play that could have skewed the numbers , but that doesn't involve cheating. I don't know what that could be, but I wonder.

    Crediting phonics isn't quite convincing as to such gains. You would expect journos with knowledge and interest to dig deeper than that. At least to articulate the avenues explored before they so throughly credit phonics as not only the thing that led to such such wild success in MS, but THE thing that anyone with sense would know is the reason.

    Somberly isn't dissing phonics, I don't know why that method ever fell into disrepute in the first place, but what happen in MS is too surprising not to be more guarded in making conclusions and certainly too important to default to a notion of untarnishable gold standards.

    1. Well, if it’s not a gold standard anymore, then Somerby should quit citing it as the gospel in every post about education he writes.

  7. "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."

    Hanford tells us why the NAEP scores increased. Somerby chooses not to believe her. That isn't Hanford's problem.

    What rational human being chooses not to believe things that contradict his own intuition, on the grounds that the facts may be bogus? That is an anti-scientific attitude but very common among untrained people. What distinguishes a scientist from someone like Somerby is that the data takes precedence over cherished beliefs and when the data contradicts such beliefs, the beliefs must yield. This is part of what is meant by "keeping an open mind" in the sciences. When someone is skeptical of data (usually due to methodology), it is incumbent on the skeptic to replicate the study or revise the methods to see the effect on the results. But data is reality, not one's beliefs about the phenomenon.

    In this case, Somerby chooses not to believe the data, even though it is NAEP data and supposedly less susceptible to cheating, and even though there has been a concerted effort to improve teaching and children's learning in MS. He states no basis for his disbelief (except some vague statistical explanation that he has so far not explained). He just knows it can't be so, so he tells the world that MS hasn't improved its teaching and that he thinks (based on what?) that phonics cannot be the cause (even though Hanford says it is the combination of phonics and language comprehension that is important, not decoding alone).

    Somerby is being an asshole. Perhaps he is disgruntled because results in MS contradict Herrnstein & Murray's cherished belief that spending money on black kids is a waste because they cannot learn?

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