Incompetence seizes Our Town once again!


With anthropological insights: It can get extremely dumb here in the streets of Our Town.

The Dumbness can play a very large role in Our Town's affairs. The Dumbness, and the Incompetence. Corruption is sometimes observed.

Regarding the Incompetence, we don't think we'd noticed this problem until we were in college. We did start to notice it then.

Some of us are never able to take this step. This doesn't mean that we're bad people. It just means we're human.

To what extent can The Dumb hold sway in Our Town? Especially given the way we've mocked The Others for their claims, beliefs and behaviors concerning last November's election, the meltdown about the New York City mayoral race is a striking case in point.

Gotham is Our Town's most famous major city. In its news report about the mayor-race meltdown, the New York Times offers this:

GLUECK (6/30/21): For the Board of Elections, which has long been plagued by dysfunction and nepotism, this was its first try at implementing ranked-choice voting on a citywide scale. Skeptics had expressed doubts about the board’s ability to pull off the process, though it is used successfully in other cities.


Some Democrats, bracing for an acrimonious new chapter in the race, are concerned that the incremental release of results by the Board of Elections—and the discovery of an error—may stir distrust of ranked-choice voting and of the city’s electoral system more broadly.

In a statement late Tuesday night, [Maya] Wiley laced into the Board of Elections, calling the error “the result of generations of failures that have gone unaddressed,” and adding: “Sadly it is impossible to be surprised.”

“Today, we have once again seen the mismanagement that has resulted in a lack of confidence in results, not because there is a flaw in our election laws, but because those who implement it have failed too many times,” she said.

According to the Times, the board "has long been plagued by dysfunction and nepotism." 

According to Candidate Wiley, the board has "failed too many times...Sadly it is impossible to be surprised,” the candidate gloomily said.

Meanwhile, will this latest remarkable bungle "stir distrust of ranked-choice voting and of the city’s electoral system more broadly?"

Yes, it surely will! It will also stir added distrust concerning the outcome of Campaign 2020. More broadly, it will stir distrust concerning the way Our Town functions in general.

How puzzling is the latest meltdown? We've wondered about this too:

GLUECK: The results may well be scrambled again: Even after the Board of Elections sorts through the preliminary tally, it must count around 124,000 Democratic absentee ballots. Once they are tabulated, the board will take the new total that includes them and run a new set of ranked-choice elimination rounds, with a final result not expected until mid-July.   


Other close observers of the election separately expressed discomfort with the decision to release a ranked-choice tally without accounting for absentee ballots.

“There is real danger that voters will come to believe a set of facts about the race that will be disproven when all votes are in,” said Ben Greenfield, a senior survey data analyst at Change Research...

Exactly! Why even try to release a vote count now, when it will have to be done all over again when the absentee ballots get counted? Maybe there's a reason for that, but we've found this puzzling too.

(We'd put that decision right up there with the bungled logic of high-end Gotham schooling. Why kick all those Asian kids out of Stuyvesant High? Why not create a Stuyvesant II, doubling the number of seats at the high-powered school? Here in Our Town, we're so dumb that we pretty much never ask. It's all about our desire to show which "racial" groups we favor!)

Things can, and do, get very dumb here in the streets of Our Town. Despite this fact, we Townies are  inclined to insist that our thought leaders can never be wrong. 

This is a very dumb belief, but it seems to be widely held.

In truth, Our Town's thought leaders are often notably lacking. Our journalists and academics have routinely failed to serve, or have actively led us astray.

Despite such facts, when a dispute breaks out along tribal lines, we're inclined to insist that The Others just have to be totally wrong. Meanwhile, we'll agree with every damn-fool thing our own thought leaders might say.

Our thought leader are often mediocre corporate-selected and corporate-paid multimillionaires. Despite our love of transparency, we aren't allowed to know how many millions they're paid to entertain us in the requisite fashion.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep. As is the nature of the race, the performance of Our Town's elites is often very poor.

Our Town is often comically awful, but this is hard for Us Townies to see. Top experts say we're wired this way—as are The Others, of course.

In Gotham, Our Town has now done it again. Maybe Cuomo can write another book explaining how he worked it all out! 

At any rate, nothing is ever as dumb as Our Town. Until you go visit Theirs!

It's impossible to be surprised by this, Candidate Wiley has said.

CRITICAL MATTERS: Goldberg breaks every rule in the book!


Also, Drum recalls the past, with anthropological insights: In Tuesday morning's New York Times, Michelle Goldberg joined the fray.

Goldberg discussed the ongoing dispute about the teaching of American history in public schools. Her column appeared beneath this headline:

The Maddening Critical Race Theory Debate

Goldberg said the debate has been "maddening." Subscribers had no way to know it, but the columnist was about to break every rule in the tribal book.

Readers of the Washington Post had already been told, in a series of columns, that the whole thing was just a "hissy fit" being staged by The Others. The central question was how we, the good smart people here in Our Town, should deal with all the "hot air" coming from a bunch of people so dumb that they can't even define the obscure academic framework known as "critical race theory!"

Over at the Washington Post, everyone had said it! Now, Goldberg decided to enter the fray—but at one point, the columnist broke every rule in the tribal book.

Is Goldberg allowed to say these things? This is what Goldberg said:

GOLDBERG (6/29/30): My own position is basically anti-anti-critical race theory, in that I disagree with some ideas associated with C.R.T., especially around limiting speech, but am extremely alarmed by efforts to demonize and ban it. There’s certainly some material that critics lump in with C.R.T. that strikes me as ridiculous and harmful. I’ve seen the risible training for school administrators calling worship of the written word “white supremacy culture.” There’s a version of antiracism based on white people’s narcissistic self-flagellation that seems to me to accomplish very little.

Is Goldberg allowed to say such things? Just consider what Goldberg said:

Goldberg said that she disagrees [sic] "with some ideas associated with critical race theory!" She said she disagrees.

Yes, that's clearly what she said. And after that, it got worse.

She said there's some material that critics lump in with CRT—i.e., some material which is specifically being criticized—which strikes her as "ridiculous," and also as "harmful." Plainly, this implies that some of the The Others' complaints may in some sense be valid!

The running dog didn't stop there! She said she's seen training for public school administrators which she regards as "risible. " Such risible conduct comes from the side of this non-debate which originates here in Our Town! 

She even said there's a version of the antiracism at issue which seems to accomplish very little. Incredibly, she said these unhelpful formulations are based on the "narcissism" of some people who live here in Our Town.

This would suggest that somewhere, someone among The Others might have a reasonable complaint about something which may be happening in our public schools! As a prelude to these shocking statements, Goldberg had even offered this:

GOLDBERG: In a recent piece in The Week, Damon Linker criticized the left for being what he called “anti-anti-critical race theory,” sidestepping legitimate objections to what he described as a “pernicious” phenomenon.

Parents protesting critical race theory, he wrote, “do not want their children taught, in state-run and state-funded schools, that the country was founded on an ideology of white supremacy in which every white child and family today is invariably complicit regardless of their personal views of their Black fellow citizens.” He compared the anti-anti-critical race theory camp to leftists in the 1950s who, while condemning McCarthyism, dismissed justified concerns about Soviet Communism.

That someone as smart as Linker, author of an essential book on the Catholic right, would analogize Communism to critical race theory strikes me as a sign of a moral panic, but leave that aside for a moment...

Good God! Goldberg had even said that someone who seems to be very smart disagreed [sic] with Our Town's basic stance in the current debate. This very smart fellow seemed to think that The Others might have some legitimate concerns about the way their children are being portrayed in their public schools.

In the end, Goldberg found a tangential way to cast this smart person's presentation as part of "a moral panic." In this way, she may have reunited herself with The Tribe. 

But is Goldberg allowed to say such ridiculous things in the first place? If she does, might this mean that the current debate isn't The Oldest Story in The Book, in which, as always, all the merit lies on Our Own Town's side?

Rather plainly, Goldberg had broken every rule in the tribal playbook. Rather plainly, she had suggested that the goodness and truth in the current dispute may not all rest with Our Tribe!

Throughout the course of human history, heretics have been burned at the stake, or dunked in the pond, or possibly pulled into four different pieces, for expressing such inappropriate views. According to major anthropologists, we're wired to behave in this unhelpful way:

We're wired to split into two warring tribes, then seek pathways to tribal war. All the merit lies on Our Side, each tribe will be wired to claim.

There's more to Goldberg's column than what we've cited so far. For now, let's move to Kevin Drum's new post, in which he recalls another dispute along these same lines—a dispute which started way back in 2014.

Back in 2014, "the folks who make up curriculum guidelines for the AP history course decided to update things," Drum writes. "This prompted dismay from conservatives and got a fair amount of press coverage."

We don't recall the incident. But Drum proceeds to offer an account of the incident by David Casalaspi, "a mainstreamish liberal who's an education policy analyst for the National Governors Association."

According to Drum, Casalaspi is "a mainstreamish liberal" and he's a policy specialist. But how weird! Drum provides this puzzling excerpt from the gentleman's later account:

CASALAPI (5/3/16): The maligned 2014 framework represented a first attempt by the College Board to produce a coherent narrative of American history which would encourage teachers to stop teaching history as a collection of trivia facts and instead teach the subject more thematically. In doing so, though, it pressured teachers to adopt racial and gender conflict as the dominant paradigm of historical development.

In this way, the 2014 framework listed “Identity”—with an emphasis on racial and gender grievances—as the first of seven “organizing themes” for the teaching of American history. Additionally, the framework was littered with references to “white Americans,” “white settlers,” “white pioneers,” and their racial biases. The concept of Manifest Destiny, for instance, was described as “built on the belief in white racial superiority.” And one of the only things students had to know about World War II was that the dropping of the atomic bomb and the internment of Japanese citizens led to the questioning of American values.

....I am a liberal, but I often found myself agreeing with conservatives on this issue because I am wary of any U.S. history curriculum that both infringes upon the free speech of teachers and proffers a narrative of history which encourages identity-building through the balkanization of student populations along racial and gender lines. The long-standing purpose of social studies is to help students understand each other as citizens, not as members of competing tribes of with irreconcilable cultures.

By our reckoning, Casalaspi "pulled a Goldberg" with respect to that earlier dispute. Even as he improbably claimed to be a liberal, he improbably said that he "often found [him]self agreeing with conservatives" about the proposed curriculum!

Improbably, he said the proposed curriculum "encouraged identity-building through the balkanization of student populations along racial and gender lines." Even as he posed as a liberal, the rather obvious running dog was pretending to believe that!

According to Casalaspi's peculiar account, The Others might have had some valid concerns back in 2014! As he continued, Drum said this about that:

"The curriculum was changed in response to complaints, and everyone seemed to be relatively happy with the final 2015 product."

By our reckoning, Drum almost seemed to be doing it too! He almost seemed to be saying that a dispute had broken out, a dispute in which The Others might not have been totally wrong!

In response to some of The Others' complaints, some changes had been made in the proposed curriculum. Everyone was pretty much happy with the final product—and yes, we're supposed to believe that!

Anthropologists came to us last night, discussing this presentation. Just look where Kevin took things from there, these disconsolate scholars all said!

They also commented on some of the comments to Drum's intriguing post. Our "human race" is wired this way, these top experts told us again, for what seemed like the ten millionth time.

Tomorrow: Ways to remain aligned with the tribe

Still coming: The current eighth-grader's tale

CRITICAL MATTERS: Telling the story The One True Way!

TUESDAY, JUNE 29, 2021

Anthropological insights: As we noted yesterday, critical theory is hot. 

More specifically, a hot discussion now surrounds the teaching of America's racial history in our public schools. How should that brutal history be taught, and should "critical race theory," whatever that is, be somehow involved in the process?

These questions are very hot. Because the primary question is very important, there's no reason why they shouldn't be. 

That said, a certain problem has appeared in Our Town, according to leading top experts. As this general topic is discussed in our leading newspapers, Our Town's thought leaders are all telling the story in Exactly The Same Approved Way.

"This is typical human behavior," one despondent scholar told us. "Our brains are wired to induce us to behave in such unhelpful ways."

This anthropologist then disappeared into his cave; loud moaning would soon emerge. This very morning, another column in the Washington Post illustrates what this skilled expert said.

The column was written by Gene Robinson. It's the fifth Post column in recent days to focus on the general question of teaching racial history in the public schools.

Yesterday, we noted the fact that all three columns in Saturday's print editions dealt with the American history / critical theory question. As of today, the number has risen to five. We offer all five links:

Colbert King (June 26): In D.C., critical race theory is simple truth-telling 

Alexandra Petri (June 26): I'm for free thinking...about the things that I believe are correct 

Alyssa Rosenberg (June 26): Ken Burns is an optimist. But he's very worried about America

Karen Attiah (June 28): The challenge for educators: How do you fight hot air?

Gene Robinson (June 29): The truth about the GOP and critical race theory

For the record, all five writers are regular Post columnists. There's not a guest essay in the bunch!

Everyone's offering his or her thoughts about critical theory and the schools. The problem is this, according to experts—to the extent that their thoughts can be said to be thoughts, their thoughts are all just the same.

As is often the case at such times, Our Town's thought leaders are all saying the exact same things about the current dispute. At the Post, they're all saying this:

There is no possible problem here. The whole thing's a GOP scam.

To what extent are the Post's thought leaders working from tribal script? We've shown you the headlines on their columns as they appeared in the Post's print editions. But here are the headlines on the most recent columns, as they appear on line: 

Karen Attiah (June 28): The challenge for educators amid the critical race theory backlash: How do you fight hot air?

Gene Robinson (June 29): The cold truth about Republicans’ hot air over critical race theory

Every day, subscribers are hit with the increasingly undisguised mandated tribal assessment. The controversy is a bunch of "hot air" from The Others. It's a bunch of hot air, full stop!

Almost surely, there is a certain amount of hot air coming from Republican pols with respect to the current debate. But as Robinson starts his column today, he displays the air of total certainty with which this belief is being asserted here in the streets of Our Town.

His column starts like this:

ROBINSON (6/29/21): Republicans’ hissy fit over critical race theory is nothing more than an attempt to rally the party’s overwhelmingly White base by denying documented history and uncomfortable truth.

This manufactured controversy has nothing to do with actual critical race theory, which, frankly, is the dry and arcane stuff of graduate school seminars. It is all about alarming White voters into believing that they are somehow threatened if our educational system makes any meaningful attempt to teach the facts of the nation’s long struggle with race.

The Republican state legislators falling over themselves to decide how history can and cannot be taught in schools—and blowhards such as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who warn that children are being taught “every White person is a racist”—know exactly what they’re doing. They seek to create a crisis where none exists in hopes of driving up GOP turnout in next year’s midterm elections.

It’s a cynical ploy...

Concerns and complaints being voiced by The Others are just "a hissy fit." The debate's a "manufactured controversy," but also a "cynical ploy."

The Others "seek to create a crisis where none exists"—and they  "know exactly what they’re doing." They're trying to "drive up GOP turnout in next year’s elections." They're just trying to rally the GOP’s overwhelmingly white base

Given the way those voters are, the pols  can do this by staging a fit any time our public schools "make any meaningful attempt to teach the facts of the nation’s long struggle with race." And that's all there is to this debate, full and complete total stop.

There's no suggestion in Robinson's column that there could be any valid concern about the way history is possibly being taught in the public schools. The whole thing's a cynical ploy. There's nothing more to notice.

Human tribes have always thundered in such ways as they've made their way towards war. Or so we're told by the despondent experts with whom we consult most nights.

Robinson thunders loudly today. In some ways, Karen Attiah's Monday column offered some comic relief. 

When she offered her overview, she started where these columns always do—with the observation that the dummies in the other tribe don't even know what CRT is!

To the extent that it matters, that certainly could be accurate. But Attiah provides some comic relief as she continues from there:

ATTIAH (6/28/21): For all the conservative outrage about critical race theory, few GOP lawmakers can define what it is. It’s not as if the theory is widely taught in the K-12 schools—we’re talking about an advanced framework developed by scholars interested in interpreting America’s systems through the lens of race and civil rights. The Texas law doesn’t even use the words “critical race theory.” The vagueness is clearly intentional, as is the paranoid bluster that critical race theory is not only unpatriotic, but also designed to make White kids feel bad for being White. Fighting it is like fighting the hot air of this blazing Texas summer.

Very few of The Others even know what CRT is! Making matters even worse, they didn't even mention CRT in the proposed state law against which Attiah rails—and as usual, the ploy was intentional!

The Others are danged if they mention it, danged if they don't! This is the way we humans have always behaved, disconsolate experts insist.

The New York Times has also been offering columns about this topic. Three regular columnists—Douthat, Krugman and Goldberg—have tackled this topic in recent days. In the process, Times subscribers have been offered much more balanced fare than their counterparts at the Post.

This morning, Michelle Goldberg even suggests that there may be a tiny germ of a minor problem floating around in this stew. She spends a few paragraphs floating this thought, then finds her way back to her senses.

Tomorrow, we'll show you how the tribal imperative conquers all, even in a column like this. But could there possibly be real problems, or valid concerns, lurking inside this tribalized food fight?

Readers, please! Of course there could! To her semi-credit, Goldberg tiptoes toward that fact today, even as the proselytizing continues at the Post.

Tomorrow: Ever so briefly, she swerves off the road

Still coming: Complaints from an actual school

Observations concerning those UFOs!

MONDAY, JUNE 28, 2021

With a memory of Old Seattle:  One year in the late 1970s, late in the month of June, we visited friends in Seattle. 

We don't think we're making this next point up. We recall that the temperature went over 80 degrees one day, with the result that some outdoor events were cancelled around the region. 

That, of course, was the old Seattle, the Seattle before climate change. From there, we proceed to two invaluable observations concerning UFOs.

First observation concerning UFOs:

From Seattle, we motored east to Glacier National Park. We spent a week with a group of friends high up, in one of the park-run chalets that can be accessed only by foot.

It snowed on the Fourth of July that year; again, this was pre-climate change. In those days, there were still glaciers in this park! We're taking you back that far!

One day, the group of six headed off on a "hike to nowhere." Briefly, we stopped on a hillside to give our bear bells a rest.  When we did, we were puzzled by a sight which stretched out before us:

We were looking at a small mountain lake whose surface was frozen over. (It was a bright, sunny day. Temps were probably in the 60s.) Weirdly, there seemed to be an opening in the middle of the lake—a type of chute which seemed to lead down into the middle of the earth.

No one could figure out what we were looking at. After something like ten minutes, somebody solved the puzzle.

We were looking at a slice of the lake which hadn't frozen over. Perhaps because the water and the air were both so clear, this had produced an unusually crisp reflection of the cliffside which rose up above the lake. 

Once the puzzle had been solved, it was obvious that it actually was the solution. You could track elements of the "chute to nowhere" back to elements of the cliff which stood above the lake.

But even after solving the puzzle, it was virtually impossible to comprehend what we were looking at. It was a completely convincing optical illusion, one we've never forgotten.

Some say that's what these UFOs are. We have no idea.

(Key update: Based on the way we're all dressed in the photos from that day, it was colder than the 60s in the area where the optical illusion occurred.)

Second observation concerning UFOs:

People, listen up! We humans don't have the slightest idea what we are, or where we are, or what we're doing there. We don't have the slightest idea what could be floating around, or if anything's floating around at all, perhaps including us.

At least in the west, we tend to be proud of our modern cosmology / physics / biology. But try this thought experiment:

Imagine that human development continues for the next thousand years. The human race isn't destroyed by nuclear war or by climate disaster. 

Donald J. Trump doesn't get elected again. Human culture and science continue to develop.


Those people a thousand years hence may look back at our cosmology with the same embarrassment we often feel when we look back at our own fairly recent ancestors. Almost surely, their understanding of the cosmos won't even resemble ours.

They may think that Einstein's formulations were embarrassingly primitive. They may know what the current set of UFO / UAP sightings were, but they'll almost surely be embarrassed, or perhaps amused, by the various ways we tried to explain them.

We humans have always been inclined to think that we understood the cosmos. Let us offer that key thought again:

We have no idea where we are or what we're doing there. 

Our basic conceptions are very limited. When people try to spell them out, the result tends to be a hopeless muddle, though journalists will stand in line to say that these explanations are just amazingly clear. 

(Even Einstein couldn't write an "Einstein-made-easy" book! More than a hundred years later, no one else has been able to do it either.)

A thousand years from now, will people actually understand the ins and outs of the cosmos?

Probably not. But they'll possibly know that they should disregard the question. 

All roads will lead to Nepal, or maybe Tibet; there will be oodles of laughter. The Dalai Lama laughs at everything, David Brooks once said.

The Dalai Lama's joy: Two years ago, Mark Epstein reviewed Brooks' book, The Second Mountain, in the New York Times. This is part of what he wrote, right in the gent's own paper:

EPSTEIN (5/12/19): Brooks does remember a lunch with the Dalai Lama. “He didn’t say anything particularly illuminating or profound,” Brooks makes a point of telling us, “but every once in a while he just burst out laughing for no apparent reason.”  Brooks was touched by the Dalai Lama’s infectious joy but does not return the favor. Despite lots of illuminating and profound quotes and stories, he never makes us smile.

Brooks came up short on infectious joy. Easy to be hard!

Meanwhile, what was the Lama laughing about? A thousand years from now, will everybody know? 

("No people are uninteresting," Yevtushenko said.)

Starting tomorrow: CRITICAL MATTERS!

MONDAY, JUNE 28, 2021

In search of Our Town's "hot air:" On Saturday morning, the Washington Post's op-ed page was CRT all the way down.

As is standard practice on Saturday mornings, the page featured three opinion columns, plus some of the week's best cartoons. All three columns concerned issues of critical race theory and the public schools. 

Below, we offer links to the three columns. The hard-copy headlines were these:

Colbert King: In D.C., critical race theory is simple truth-telling 
Alexandra Petri: I'm for free thinking...about the things that I believe are correct 
Alyssa Rosenberg: Ken Burns is an optimist. But he's very worried about America

In fairness, only one of the four cartoons dealt with CRT. That said, the three columnists all adopted a fairly standard position:

They excoriated Republicans and conservatives for the dumbness of their complaints concerning critical theory. No one suggested that there could possibly be any dumbness on display in Our Town concerning this current topic.

The scorn was general, and was sometimes quite heated. Rosenberg had interviewed Ken Burns, the celebrated film-maker / historian, about this ongoing topic. Below, you see the heart of her account of what Burns had said:

ROSENBERG (6/26/21): [Burns] believes in looking hard at the nation’s flaws because he believes one of the things that makes it great is its capacity to learn from the past and make progress, even if the country backslides along the way.

That attitude is what drives his opposition to laws attempting to regulate the way schools teach American history, including by banning critical race theory—previously a relatively esoteric academic discipline—and the curriculum based on the 1619 Project.

“Our children are way too smart” to be protected from history, Burns insists. “We don't really care about them if we think that they have to be fed pablum for their entire life.”

The dangers of such hypersensitivity about the past and its connections to the present aren’t just limited to children, he says.

“I think this is the greatest threat to our republic ever. Not the Depression, not World War II, not the Civil War. This is it,” Burns told me. “This moment of all these intersecting viruses, of novel coronaviruses and of racial injustice—a 402-year-old-virus. And it’s an age-old human virus of lying and misinformation and paranoia and conspiracy. This is the pill that will kill us unless we do something.”

As a counterexample, Burns points to South Carolina, where he’s helped raise money for the soon-to-open International African American Museum. That state is not immune from partisan debates about school curriculums. But at least some of the state, Burns says, “understands it has a rich and diverse history that isn’t just the old antebellum plantation bull----” and has been able to develop new kinds of tourism in response.

According to Rosenberg, Burns opposes laws "attempting to regulate the way schools teach American history, including by banning critical race theory." Depending on the particular law in question, he may well be right.

That said, Rosenberg's presentation of Burns' view struck us as highly standard. Included was the mandated statement that people opposing CRT "don't even know what it is."

In a great may cases, that familiar claim may well be accurate. That said, Burns was highly exercised about the current state of affairs.

Just for the record, the various states and their subdivisions have always "regulate[d] the way schools teach American history." They've done so through the adoption of mandated history curriculums. 

Down through the many long years, some of these state and local curriculums have shown more wisdom, some have shown a great deal less.

That said:

According to Rosenberg, Burns believes the current wave of proposed laws represents "the greatest threat to our republic ever."  The proposed laws represent "an age-old human virus of lying and misinformation and paranoia and conspiracy."

It's "a 402-year-old virus," Burns apparently said. He was tracking back to 1619, a newly controversial date in our nation's tribal wars.

Burns was so exercised about the current threat that he even uttered a word Rosenberg couldn't print in the Washington Post! On the brighter side, he cited the fact that "at least some of the [people in the] state" of South Carolina were insightful enough to see beyond this "old antebellum plantation bull----." 

So Burns framed the current state of affairs. Simply put, The Others were very dumb and very bad. Those in Our Town were enlightened.

In this way, Burns adopted an extremely familiar framework as he warned about the nation's demise. According to an array of experts, he'd adopted an extremely tribal framework. Such frameworks place all the good, decent, intelligent people within a speaker's own tribe.

To our ear, Burns' presentation wasn't just extremely familiar, it was also a bit simple-minded. 

“Our children are way too smart” to be protected from history, Burns apparently insisted at one point. But is that true of our first- and second-graders? Even in their later years, is there no possible version of history which might mislead Our Town's brilliant kids?

We'll guess that no one asked.

We live in highly tribal times. In our view, Rosenberg's column was identifiably tribal. 

Within the framework of her column, The Others are unfailingly dumb, and borderline evil. But over here, within Our Town, even the children are smart! 

This is the type of bombast we're now absorbing over here in the streets of Our Town. In the towns where The Others live, they're routinely being exposed to different types of tribal bombast—and rarely the twain shall meet!

All this week, we'll explore an extremely offensive questions. Dumb as they undoubtedly are, is it possible that The Others may have some valid concerns or complaints concerning the matters at hand?

Also this:

Is it possible that various people here in Our Town are capable of making mistakes concerning the way our nation's history should be taught in our public schools? We'll even be asking that as the week proceeds!

At times like these, top experts say, humans are rarely exposed to questions about the conduct of people within their own tribe. For those of us within the blue tribe, we will rarely be exposed to doubts about the conduct which occurs in Our Town. 

On Saturday morning, three Post columnists sang one familiar tribal song about this critical matter. This morning, Karen Attiah may have topped all three with her own column about this same topic.

Attiah denounces all the "hot air" being expelled by The Others. But is it possible that some such air may also be coming from us?

We'll explore this very important question during the heat of the upcoming week. We'll probably start with a column by George Will—more precisely, with the alleged situation in a private school to which his column refers.

We're likely to start with a reference from Will! In fairness, he's staunchly anti-Trump. But even on a provisional basis, are you willing to go there?

Tomorrow: Can we possibly see something odd about these unusual numbers?


Concerning the progress in Chicago's schools!

SUNDAY, JUNE 27, 2021

The Drumcat forces a postscript: Has there been progress in the Chicago public schools over the past twenty years?

In this Saturday afternoon post, Kevin Drum seemed to say the answer was no. For that reason, we offer a postscript to our own report from Saturday morning.

Here's the problem: Kevin focused on reading scores, offering his reason for doing so. As a general matter, progress in reading has been slow and hard. That's been true around the nation and also around the world.

Chicago has recorded large score gains on the Naep. But those score gains have come in math. 

In what follows, we'll use 2003 as our starting-point, matching what Kevin did. We'll discuss Grade 8 math on the Naep:

In 2003, Chicago's black kids were outperformed by their black counterparts nationwide. On average, they were outscored by roughly 7 points on the Naep scale. 

As of 2019, Chicago's black kids were scoring roughly two years higher in math. By then, they were outscoring their black peers nationwide by a full 12 points.

On its face, that's very large progress—and the same pattern obtained for Chicago's white kids during this stretch of time. 

In 2003, Chicago's white kids were outperformed by their white counterparts nationwide. On average, they were outscored by roughly 11 points on the Naep scale.  

As of 2019, Chicago's white kids were scoring almost three years higher in math. By then, they were outscoring their white peers nationwide by almost 12 points.

Some of these changes may reflect demographic changes within Chicago's different "racial" groups. That said, when people refer to progress in Chicago, this is basically what they mean. We'd still challenge the characterization of the Chicago schools Karin Chenoweth offers in her new book, for the reasons we cited in yesterday's report.

A few final points:

Naep data can only tell us so much, but Naep data are endlessly fascinating. The federal government presents a treasure trove of these data, but our upper-end press corps would rather hold hands and jump off a bridge than analyze, report or discuss them.

Statistics are known to be boring and hard. But there's also this:

Here in Our (deeply delusional, self-impressed) Town, nobody cares about black kids! Also, nobody cares about low-income kids. Nothing could possibly be more clear, nor is this going to change.

You'll never see cable star Rachel Maddow talk about low-income kids. She wants to talk, and talk and talk, about Rudy and Manafort and Barr, and also of course about Trump. She wants to chortle and laugh and entertain us as she discusses the highly amusing stupidity of The Others.

(Also, she wants us to love and adore her.)

Friday night, she even wasted oodles of time laughing about that poor, low-level bank exec shlub who loaned all that money to Manafort. She was actually hoping that we can get that pitiful low-level shlub locked up. She mugged and clowned and had a grand time dreaming her dreams about this. 

(According to experts, almost everything can seem amusing and funny when you're paid multiple millions per year.)

By way of contrast:

As far as Rachel is concerned, this nation's good, decent low-income kids can just go hang in the yard. According to experts, Our Town's multimillionaire cable news stars have appalling values and very poor judgment and we rubes are unable to see this.

For all Naep data, just click here. It's an amazing collection of data. 

No "journalist" ever clicks that link. Dearest darlings, use your heads! It simply isn't done!

HIS LATEST COLUMN: We never stop telling these upbeat stories!


Basic concerns disappear: For starters, let's look at Chicago.

By light years, it's the largest of the six school districts discussed in Karin Chenoweth's new book, Districts That Succeed: Breaking the Correlation Between Race, Poverty, and Achievement. 

By light years, Chicago is the largest such district discussed in Chenoweth's book. In his latest column for the Washington Post, Jay Mathews reports what Chenoweth says about the other five "Districts That Succeed," three of which are "tiny."

He then reports what Chenoweth says about Chicago, the nation's third-largest school district. This is what Chenoweth says:

MATHEWS (6/21/21): And then there’s Chicago. In 1987, Education Secretary William Bennett declared it the worst school district in the country. Its reputation eventually improved enough to be considered a bit better than Detroit’s.

But Chenoweth detected a startling turnaround in the past decade. In 2011, 48 percent of Chicago’s fourth-graders met basic standards for reading. In 2015, 67 percent of that same group met basic standards for eighth-graders. No other urban district measured by federal tests had shown that kind of increase in that period of time.

Chenoweth sums it up this way: In Chicago, fourth- and eighth-graders “now achieve at levels above many other cities and right around the national average.”

Let's start with a quibble. Chenoweth didn't exactly "detect" the apparent improvement recorded by Chicago's public school students. 

The improvement described in Mathews' column has been widely noted. Chicago's higher test scores are a basic matter of record, based upon student performance on the federally-administered NAEP tests of reading and math.

Chicago's performance has improved on the Naep, the testing program widely known as "The Nation's Report Card." The summary Mathews quotes does sound quite impressive:

In Chicago, fourth- and eighth-graders “now achieve at levels above many other cities and right around the national average.”

Chicago's kids are now achieving at levels "right around the national average?" Given that large urban system's demographics, that sounds like extremely good news.

Here in Our Town, we've been in love with stories like this dating at least to the mid-1960s. That said, here are Chicago's Grade 8 math scores from the most recent Naep tests, as compared to the scores which were recorded in public schools nationwide:

Average scores, Grade 8 math
Chicago public schools, 2019 Naep
White students: 303.22
Black students: 264.24
Hispanic students: 274.61
All students: 275.26

Average scores, Grade 8 math
U.S. public schools, 2019 Naep
White students: 291.46
Black students: 259.21
Hispanic students: 267.96
All students: 280.99

For all Naep data, start here. We'll apply a conventional, though very rough, rule of thumb to place those scores in perspective:

According to that very rough rule of thumb, black kids in Chicago outperformed black kids nationwide by something like one-half an academic year. 

Assuming there's nothing wrong with the data, that's a fairly good performance. The performance gets a little bit better when family income is factored in. 

On the other hand:

According to that very rough rule of thumb, black kids in Chicago were outperformed by white kids nationwide by something like 2.5 academic years. 

Chicago's black kids performed way below their white peers nationwide. Making matters somewhat worse, the nation's Asian/Pacific Islanders kids performed, on average, 18 points higher than the nation's white kids. 

(In Chicago, a "District That Succeeds," API kids outscored black kids by an astounding 52 points! If it's equal performance that we seek, what would failure look like?)

In a slightly different world, it would be shocking to see results like those treated as good news, worthy of a book. It would be shocking to see a district whose black kids were 2-3 years behind the nation's white kids heralded as one of six—count 'em, six!—"Districts That Succeed" nationwide.

In a slightly different world—in a world where anyone, black or white, actually cared—Our Town would be dropping R-bombs on the heads of academics and journalists who were willing to offer that framework. Luckily, no one in Our Town really cares about this, so Chenoweth (and Mathews) will be spared the name-calling.

Chicago's students have been scoring better in recent years on the Naep, our nation's one testing program which seems to be fairly reliable. That said, if anyone actually cared about matters like this, the R-bombs would be descending on Chenoweth's head as payment for the upbeat way she characterized those data.

Imagine! Chicago's black kids were two to three years behind the nation's white kids when tested in Grade 8 math. On that basis, we're anointing Chicago as one of six (6) districts nationwide which are showing us how to succeed!

Our standards tend to be clownishly low when we construct these stories. That's because nobody cares, or at least so it seems.

In truth, Our Town has been in love with such stories since the 1960s. Our Town's motto may as well be this:

You gotta believe!

Historically, we've always been ready to believe these upbeat "Schools That Work" presentations.  We're always ready to move ahead to the next presentation suggesting that the solution to our education problems may lie right around the corner.

We're always willing to believe! That brings us back to the other five "Districts That Succeed" in Chenoweth's latest book.

Three of those districts are accurately described by Mathews as "tiny." (If only on a statistical basis, it seems off that they're included.) The other two districts are small.

There are no Naep data—none at all—for these other five districts. As a large city, Chicago participates in the Naep's Trial Urban District Assessment. But there are no stand-alone Naep data for the other five districts.

When Professor Reardon assembled the voluminous data upon which Chenoweth relied, he had to use data from our various rattletrap statewide testing programs. There are no other data he could have compiled—but at this point, an elementary fact disappears.

That fact is known to everybody. That basic fact would be this:

As everyone know, these statewide testing programs have been dogged by massive cheating scandals in recent years. And no, we aren't talking about something as simple or semi-innocent as "teaching to the test." 

We're talking about outright cheating—absurdly flagrant outright cheating for the purpose of improving the scores from a classroom, school or district. We're even talking about so-called "erasure parties," where teachers would gather to change wrong answers to right on students' answer sheets after the testing was over.

Within the last decade or so, this sort of thing went on in Atlanta, in Philadelphia, in D.C. In Atlanta, the highly-regarded superintendent was indicted on racketeering charges, but died before going to trial. Eleven teachers and administrators were convicted on criminal charges.

Purely by happenstance, we ourselves became aware of outright cheating at certain schools in  Baltimore in the early 1970s. On several occasions, we wrote about this topic in the Baltimore Sun. On a sporadic basis, this problem popped up again and again over the years, but it was serially forgotten about by the nation's press.

Within the past decade, some major newspapers finally caught up with this practice. As a result, it became a major national story. Everybody knows that this sort of thing has gone on, but when we want to stop worrying here in Our Town, such knowledge may disappear.

For various reasons, the Naep is largely immune to such practices. Statewide testing programs are not. When Professor Reardon assembled his data, he was working with mountains of test scores from those testing programs.

Aside from Chicago, Chenoweth profiles five school districts which allegedly have succeeded. One of them produced the most anomalous test scores in the entire nation, by far, within Reardon's voluminous data.

Does Chenoweth know if the testing programs in those five districts may have been invalidated in some way, whether deliberately or by simple error? Did she try to examine this point?

As we've noted, one of her districts produced the most anomalous test scores in the entire nation, by far! Given what's happened in other locations, did it occur to her that she might want to ask around?

Also this: Did it occur to Mathews? His wife, Linda Mathews, is one of the journalists who blew the whistle on one of the nation's largest cheating scandals. He knows that cheating exists.

Should this apparent point of concern be mentioned as part of his column? Why do we simply proceed as if there's no such point of concern?

Here in Our Town, we don't really care about low-income kids, but we're fully convinced that we do.

The very bad people are all Over There, and we enjoy calling them racists. As for ourselves, we stopped discussing low-income schools a long time ago. We walked away from the topic when it became clear that finding solutions to this brutal legacy was going to be be hard.

Today, it's all about Our Town's R-bombs—the R-bombs we aim Over There. No one cares about the kids who attend our low-income schools. We prove this point again and again, and then we prove it again.

We've written about Jay's column all week. (We've long admired Jay's work.) Here in Our Town, where the good people live, you'll never hear Chenoweth, or her upbeat book, ever mentioned again.

Anthropologically, this is a lesson in human nature. Or so major experts have said.

In the end, two choices: One of Chenoweth's "Districts That Succeed" was producing highly anomalous test scores as of 2009-2012. Way back then, that district was overperforming in a way no other district in the nation came close to matching.

In April 2016, this fact became abundantly clear when the New York Times published its graphic of Reardon's data. When it came to over-performance, that district was in a class by itself, by a rather wide margin.

Our question:

Why didn't Our Town descend on that district to figure out what it was doing? Until this week, you'd never heard a single word about that high-performing district. 

Why didn't that high-performing district get swarmed by the deeply caring people we admire so much in Our Town?

We can offer two possible answers:

No one believed that those scores were real. More likely, nobody looked at that New York Times graphic. And that's because nobody cares!

HIS LATEST COLUMN: Steubenville turned to a phonics-rich program?

FRIDAY, JUNE 25, 2021

Does this explanation make sense?: In his latest column in the Washington Post, Jay Mathews speaks in praise of Karin Chenoweth's new book.

“Districts That Succeed: Breaking the Correlation Between Race, Poverty, and Achievement.” That's the full title of the very short, very expensive book—of the very short and expensive book no one will ever discuss.

We know that no one will ever discuss Chenoweth's book because no one ever does. In fact, people don't care about books like this. Just consider Chenoweth's earlier books, listed here along with her current title:

"It's Being Done": Academic Success in Unexpected Schools (Harvard Education Press, 2007)

How It's Being Done: Urgent Lessons from Unexpected Schools  (Harvard Education Press, 2009)

Getting It Done: Leading Academic Success in Unexpected Schools (Harvard Education Press, 2011)

Schools That Succeed: How Educators Marshal the Power of Systems for Improvement (Harvard Education Press, 2017)

Districts That Succeed: Breaking the Correlation Between Race, Poverty, and Achievement (Harvard Education Press, 2021)

You've never heard of those earlier books. You've never heard of Chenoweth herself.

You've heard of Harvard, but you've never heard of the Harvard Education Press. Most significantly, you've never heard of the Steubenville City Schools, one of six "Districts That Succeed" in Chenoweth's latest book.

You've never heard of any of this, and you never will. Mathews, you see, is a major outlier in the American upper-end press. 

Mathews cares about public schools. He actually cares about low-income "Schools Which (allegedly)  Work."

He cares about (alleged) "academic success in unexpected schools." He cares about schools and school districts which (allegedly) succeed.

Mathews cars about stuff like that! In the loftier precincts of Our (self-impressed) Town, almost no one  does.

We know that no one cares about any of this because of the Steubenville schools. Below, Mathews describes what Chenoweth's new book says about those schools:

MATHEWS (6/21/21): The book has six case studies...Steubenville, a working-class community in Ohio, had some of the best-performing third- and fourth-graders in the country.


Steubenville benefited from bringing in the heavily scripted, phonics-rich Success for All program, invented by Johns Hopkins University researchers Robert Slavin and Nancy Madden. That imaginative married couple had a quirky but clever requirement: Schools were barred from using their system unless 80 percent of the teachers approved by secret ballot.

According to that account, Steubenville decided to use "the heavily scripted, phonics-rich Success for All program." Apparently as a result, the public schools of this working-class community produced "some of the best-performing third- and fourth-graders in the country."

Truly, that sounds like a miracle cure. Also this:

Until this week, you had never heard a single word about any of this. You'd never heard a single word about Steubenville's miracle cure!

In large part, that's because no one actually cares about what happens in low-income schools. We may not know this about ourselves, but few things could be more clear.

According to Mathews' account of Chenoweth's book, Steubenville began using  a certain reading program. As a result, performance shot through the roof. 

As we noted yesterday, the story is even more remarkable if we look at the data from Professor Sean Reardon which lie behind Chenoweth's book.

Reardon's data covered the academic performance of children in Grades 3 through 8 over the four-year period from 2009 through 2012. Based upon those voluminous data, Steubenville was already the nation's leading over-performing school district as of 2012, across that entire six-grade span.

Indeed, according to Reardon's data, Steubenville was the nation's leading over-performer by an extremely wide margin. No one else over-performed to the extent that Steubenville did. 

Also, nobody cared. In fairness, it isn't even clear that anyone even noticed. Let's back up a bit:

We know all these things about Steubenville because of something the New York Times did. To its vast credit, the Times constructed and published an extremely informative graphic built from Reardon's voluminous data.

The New York Times posted that graphic in April 2016. You can peruse it here.

The Times created and published that graphic. But in one of its amazingly typical, amazingly incompetent attempts at education reporting, a trio of Times reporters offered this puzzling assessment:

RICH ET AL (4/29/16): The data was not uniformly grim. A few poor districts—like Bremen City, Ga. and Union City, N.J.—posted higher-than-average scores. They suggest the possibility that strong schools could help children from low-income families succeed.

“There are some outliers, and trying to figure out what’s making them more successful is worth looking at,” said Mr. Reardon, a professor of education and lead author of the analysis.

It's true! Based upon Reardon's analysis of test scores and socioeconomic data, the school districts in Bremen City and Union City actually had over-performed, compared to the rest of the nation. But neither district had over-performed to the anything like the extent the schools in Steubenville school district had.

According to Reardon's data, the Steubenville schools were by themselves when it came to over-performance. In a thoroughly typical journalistic performance, a trio of Times reporters had failed to notice this fact.

Long story short! Steubenville's schools seemed to be in a class by themselves as of 2012. As of April 2016, this striking fact was blindingly obvious on the graphic the New York Times published, even if the paper's reporters were too clueless to notice this fact.

More than five years ago, it was clear that Steubenville had been the nation's leading over-performer as far back as 2012. But until this very week, you never heard a word about that, mainly because no one cares.

Did anyone rush to Steubenville to see what was going on? Citizens, please! That would mean somebody cared!

All these years later, Chenoweth is finally offering an explanation of how Steubenville produced so much (apparent) success. Based on Mathews' account, she says the small district decided to use Success For All, and striking academic success ensued, of the Grade 4 and Grade 4 levels.

Mathews reported her claim this week, but you'll never hear about it again. That's because no one in Our Town actually cares about such highly tedious stuff.

Here in Our Town, we do perform a good game. We like to posture, parade and pose, especially on the "thought leader" level. 

Rachel Maddow sells us her goods. We lap her porridge up. 

Our cable channels make us feel that we're good, decent people. In fact, we are good, decent people—most people are—when judged on the "human race" scale. 

That said, we aren't especially sharp in Our Town. (Scientists claim that we're so dumb that we don't even know that!) We're also stuck with our leadership class, and they just aren't real hot.

Karin Chenoweth's new book in her fifth such book on the "Schools That Work" theme. You've never heard of the first four books, and you'll never hear another word about this fifth book either.

You've never heard of Chenoweth herself, and you never will.

To visit the kids in the Steubenville schools, you can click this link. It takes you to the district's Pugliese West Elementary School, one of its three fairly small elementary schools. You can click further from there.

Tomorrow, our question will be this:

Is it possible that something was wrong with the data Reardon was using? Is it possible that Steubenville never really over-performed in the way which has been alleged—in the way, nine years later, we're finally hearing described?

Is it possible that Steubenville didn't over-perform? You've never heard such questions asked because nobody actually cares.

We'll also get to Chicago's performance. That district isn't tiny or small. What's been happening there?

Tomorrow: Amazingly, disappeared!

HIS LATEST COLUMN: What happened in the Steubenville schools?


No one inquired or asked: In terms of basic anthropology, it's the dumbness which we typically find most striking.

(Full disclosure: These perceptions are shaped by our consultations with major anthropologists.)

None of us humans are perfect, of course; we're all subject to error. That said, consider a recent statement about the students who attend the Los Angeles public schools. 

(We refer to the schools of the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation's second-largest school district.)

The statement appeared in a front-page report in the New York Times. At one point, readers were offered this:

COWAN AND HUBLER (6/22/21): The challenges of the Los Angeles public schools have, for generations, been epic. The district sprawls across 710 square miles and encompasses some 1,400 schools.  Eighty percent of the students live in poverty, and nearly 100,000 are learning English...

Really? Do eighty percent of the students in the Los Angeles public schools (the LAUSD) actually "live in poverty?"

On the one hand, it all depends on what the meaning of "living in poverty" is. We all can choose to use such terms in whatever way we please, and our journalists frequently do.

On the other hand, certain regularities exist with respect to the term in question. For the record, the Times report provides no link in support of its eye-catching claim.

That said, the claim is almost surely derived from a different statistical statement, according to which "approximately 80% of LAUSD students qualify for free or reduced-price meals" (under the relevant federal program). 

(This statement is widely available. The district itself doesn't seem to publish any statistics about the family income of its students.)

Approximately 80% of LAUSD students qualify for free or reduced-price meals? That sounds like an accurate statement, but to qualify for that federal program, a student's family doesn't have to be living below the federal poverty line. 

Under that program, the cut-off line for family income is roughly double the federal poverty line. Beyond that, let's just say that the FBI doesn't investigate claims about income when students apply for the program.

Given these facts, participation in that program isn't a measure of "poverty" as the term is generally used in journalistic contexts. This fact has been explained a trillion times, at this site and in other locations, but our major newspapers have never managed to get themselves straight on this highly tedious matter.

Understanding statistics can be hard, and we humans are inclined to be dumb. We prefer exciting statements to precision. Anthropologically speaking, we just aren't super sharp.

All these thoughts rushed through our heads when we encountered a few of the statistical claims in a certain news report in this morning's Washington Post. That said, let's cut straight to the chase about what the Post is reporting.

The Post is reporting a change in who will be attending a highly selective public high school in the Washington area. Many Asians are out, many others are in. On balance, we regard this whole discussion as stupendously dumb:

NATANSON (6/24/21): Prestigious magnet school Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology will welcome the most diverse class of students in recent school history next fall, according to data released Wednesday by Fairfax County Public Schools.

The class will include more Black and Hispanic students than any class admitted in the past four years. It will include fewer Asian students, who have historically made up the vast majority of admitted students, and a larger percentage of female students.

But the biggest jump came in admission offers to economically disadvantaged students, meaning students who qualify for free or reduced-price school meals. In previous years, these students accounted for 2 percent or fewer of all children offered spots at Thomas Jefferson, known as TJ. This year, 25 percent of all students receiving offers are economically disadvantaged, according to Fairfax data.

The TJ Class of 2025 is the first to be admitted under a new admissions system approved late last year that asked school staffers to consider applicants’ socioeconomic and racial backgrounds and did away with a long-standing, notoriously difficult admissions test, as well as a $100 application fee. Fairfax County Schools Superintendent Scott Brabrand implemented these changes in a bid to boost diversity of all kinds at the school.

All things being roughly equal, we think it's good when schools are more diverse rather than less diverse. Beyond that, we congratulate the Post's Hannah Natanson for discussing the school lunch program without going to shaky or flatly inaccurate statements about how many students are "living in poverty."

On the other hand, sad! If so many kids can handle the challenging curriculum at this "prestigious magnet school," that's extremely good news. But in that case, why not open a TJ Annex, a TJ II? Why not have two TJ schools, so all those kids can benefit from the challenging instruction?

Why not serve twice as many kids? Why should we boot the Asian kids out? Why can't every eager, qualified kid be allowed to take part in this school's high-powered work?

That question may be the most obvious question currently available anywhere in the world. It arises at no point in the Post's report, in the course of which the superintendent rhapsodizes about his good deed without explaining why he didn't simply increase the number of seats at this challenging school.

If so many kids are up to the challenge—if so many kids could benefit—why not increase the number of seats available at these schools? This obvious question doesn't arise in this morning's Post, and it never arises in the New York Times as that paper continues its endless, dull-witted proselytizing about who should get to attend that city's most selective high schools.

Here in Our Town, we're frequently very dumb. Consider the total lack of interest in the Steubenville City Schools, a topic which returns us to Jay Mathews' latest column.

As we outlined yesterday, Mathews wrote about Karin Chenoweth's new book, Districts That Succeed: Breaking the Correlation Between Race, Poverty. 

As Mathews notes, Chenoweth writes about six school districts, three of which are "tiny" while two are merely small. Concerning those five school districts, Mathews summarizes thusly:

MATHEWS (6/21/21): The book has six case studies. In Valley Stream 30, a tiny district on Long Island, N.Y., African American students performed 1.2 grade levels above the national average for all students in 2016. In the Seaford district in southern Delaware, Black third- and fourth-graders in 2019 caught up to where White students had been in 2014. Steubenville, a working-class community in Ohio, had some of the best-performing third- and fourth-graders in the country. The Cottonwood and Lane districts in Oklahoma are tiny, but they got together to boost low-income children.

As we noted yesterday, Cottonwood and Lane are so extremely tiny that their inclusion in this book is almost an admission of defeat.  Do we have to include two districts so tiny just to find six school districts which (allegedly) work?

That said, the Steubenville district isn't tiny; it's just fairly small. It seems to enroll roughly 2500 students, spread from PK through Grade 12. It runs three elementary schools.

In our opinion, this district's inclusion in this project says something about the way things work here in the orgs of Our Town. The statement isn't flattering:

As Mathews notes, Chenoweth relied, at least in part, on Sean Reardon's research to locate her districts which work. Here's the passage in which Mathews explains this:

MATHEWS: By sifting through the research of Sean Reardon, a sociologist at Stanford University, Chenoweth identified districts that overcame such pitfalls. Reardon and his team spent four years plotting on graphs nearly all U.S. school districts based on their students’ socioeconomic standing and academic achievement. Chenoweth looked for districts where achievement was better than socioeconomics would have predicted. She visited those places to see what was going on.

Presumably, Mathews is referring to the data from Reardon which was the basis for a fascinating graphic in the New York Times. 

The data covered four years of student performance in the nation's many school districts—2009 through 2012. The graphic appeared in the New York Times in April 2016.

You can see the graphic here. Even then, Steubenville was perhaps the largest outlier in the entire country. (Go ahead—just enter "Steubenville" in the graphic's search engine.)

Based upon the socioeconomic status of its students during that four-year period, no school district in the country had overperformed in the way Steubenville had. Truth to tell, no other district was really close.

In an equal but opposite way, no school district in the country underperformed to such an extent. Steubenville was the largest outlier in the nation. Based on the test scores and the socioeconomic data Reardon was using, its students had outpaced expectations to an unparalleled degree.

We mention that for this reason:

The four years in question were 2009 through 2012. Meanwhile, the  graphic to which we've linked appeared in the New York Times in April 2016.

Five years ago, there Steubenville sat, a striking statistical outlier. If we assume that the data in question were good, Steubenville was overperforming to an astounding degree.

Why do we mention this fact? Easy! Nine years after the test scores in question were recorded; five years after that graphic appeared; you've never heard a single word about the Steubenville schools. 

The Times didn't go to Steubenville to see what was happening there. Rachel never interrupted her (increasingly disgraceful) mugging and clowning to tell you that this low-income, struggling town had been knocking the ball out of the park when it came to student achievement.

You never heard a word about this, and that's because nobody cares. We've told you and told you and told you that about the values of Our Town. This example helps establish out point.

Meanwhile, we think of a key word we floated yesterday. That key word was "allegedly."

We'll discuss that key word before we're done. For today, we'll close with this:

Are 80% of Los Angeles students really "living in poverty?" Also, why didn't that superintendent increase the numbers of seats at his highly prestigious high school?

The first question is boring and hard. The second never arises.

We just aren't super sharp in Our Town. We're so dumb, experts glumly say, we aren't even aware of the problem! 

They tell us this again and again. They exhibit a miserable thousand-yard stare whenever they share this finding.

Tomorrow: Score gains from Chicago

How low-income was it: What was Steubenville's socioeconomic status during the four years in question? One measure of that status is recorded in the New York Times graphic.

According to Reardon's data, median family income for Steubenville students stood at $19,000 per year. By way of contrast, median income among Detroit students was $27,000. In Cleveland, the figure was $24,000.

Were those figures accurate? How are we supposed to know!

HIS LATEST COLUMN: Presenting the latest "Schools That Work!"


A few tiny schools, plus Chicago: As we noted yesterday, we've long been fans of Jay Mathews' work. Despite that fact, we aren't big fans of his most recent column.

The column appeared in Monday's Washington Post; it sang a familiar song.  In print editions, the headline on the column said this:

Surprising gains in five school districts you’ve never heard of, plus Chicago

Mathews is a highly experienced, highly regarded education reporter and columnist. He's done a lot, and he knows a lot. In this, his latest weekly column, he was praising a new book by a former colleague.

According to Mathews' description, the new book walks a very familiar road. (That doesn't necessarily mean that the book is wrong in some way.)

Still, it's a very familiar road, one which has led folks astray in the past. Mathews' column began like this:

MATHEWS (6/21/21): When Karin Chenoweth began a five-year stint as a columnist at The Washington Post in 1999, she soon became one of the best education writers I had ever read. She has gotten better since. Her latest book takes us to the heart of student achievement, and why we so rarely give our most disadvantaged students what they need.

The title is “Districts That Succeed: Breaking the Correlation Between Race, Poverty, and Achievement.” As she has done in previous books and in her work as writer-in-residence for the Education Trust advocacy organization, she explains in detail how some educators have managed to defy low expectations, despite an undertow of mindless routine in our schools.

According to Mathews' description, Chenoweth has written the latest book about those inspiring "Schools That Work." 

Chenoweth has written about schools—actually, about school districts—which have "defied low expectations." About schools in which "our most disadvantaged students" finally get what they need, with very good results.

Here in Our Town, we've been in love with this narrative format dating at least to the 1960s. We love love love these inspiring tales. They never stop popping up.

That said, we've often gone wrong as we've swallowed these tales, which tend to suggest that it should be easy to eliminate the "achievement gaps" which exist in our public schools. That doesn't necessarily mean that anything's wrong in Chenoweth's book, which was written through the auspices of the Education Trust. 

(Full disclosure: The organization isn't called the Education Trust But Verify. Having accomplished that bit of gloomy foreshadowing, let's continue with Mathews' description of Chenoweth's book.)

As he continues, Mathews' names the names of the latest "Schools That Work." Three of the six school districts are "tiny," he correctly says:

MATHEWS (continuing directly): The book has six case studies. In Valley Stream 30, a tiny district on Long Island, N.Y., African American students performed 1.2 grade levels above the national average for all students in 2016. In the Seaford district in southern Delaware, Black third- and fourth-graders in 2019 caught up to where White students had been in 2014. Steubenville, a working-class community in Ohio, had some of the best-performing third- and fourth-graders in the country. The Cottonwood and Lane districts in Oklahoma are tiny, but they got together to boost low-income children.

And then there’s Chicago...

Chenoweth has examined six school districts which allegedly work. As Mathews' headline suggests, you've never heard of five of these districts, three of which he correctly describes as "tiny."

Three of the "Districts Which Work" are tiny. For the record, Seaford and Steubenville are small. 

That said, Chicago completes the gang of six, and Chicago is very large! Advancing claims we've reviewed in the past, Chenoweth is said to have said this:

MATHEWS (continuing directly): And then there’s Chicago. In 1987, Education Secretary William Bennett declared it the worst school district in the country. Its reputation eventually improved enough to be considered a bit better than Detroit’s.

But Chenoweth detected a startling turnaround in the past decade. In 2011, 48 percent of Chicago’s fourth-graders met basic standards for reading. In 2015, 67 percent of that same group met basic standards for eighth-graders. No other urban district measured by federal tests had shown that kind of increase in that period of time.

Chenoweth sums it up this way: In Chicago, fourth- and eighth-graders “now achieve at levels above many other cities and right around the national average.”

Chicago, our nation's third largest district, is also allegedly a "district that works!" Five of these districts are tiny or small. Chicago is very large.

At any rate, there you see the field of play, as described in Mathews' column. For today, as a point of caution, we will only say this:

When Mathews calls three of those school districts "tiny," he isn't kidding around!

As Mathews notes, the Cottonwood and Lane School Districts are located in rural Oklahoma. According to this profile from Education Trust, the Lane district serves a total of 274 kids, full stop, spread through ten grade levels (PK through Grade 8).

That's a truly tiny school district, but Cottonwood is smaller! Indeed, it's hardly a "district" at all. According to that same profile, it operates only one school, another PK through Grade 8 school which serves a total of 180 students. 

Although we share the old school system tie, we've never met or spoken with Mathews. We've long admired his approach to public school issues, largely because his demeanor and instincts are different from our own.

Concerning this current issue, we learned, long ago, in the early years of our time in the Baltimore City Schools, to be cautious concerning upbeat claims about those "Schools That Work." 

We were among the first to note that claims from such schools may not always be what they seem. In this case, a skeptic might offer this thought:

Our of all the school districts in all towns in all the country, Chenoweth had to walk into three tiny districts just to find six that allegedly work. You'll also note that we keep including that one key word, "allegedly!"

She had to include three tiny districts just to name six we can talk about! That doesn't necessarily mean that anything's "wrong" in her book. 

We do take that as a warning sign concerning the latest appearance of this very familiar old framework. And yes, we return to that nagging key word: "allegedly."

Three of the districts in question are "tiny." Two other districts are small.

Chicago would, of course, be a much larger story. Before the week is done, we'll examine the claims about the Chicago schools which Mathews reports, as we've done in the past.

Eventually, we'll go to Chicago! First, though, we'll discuss a blindingly obvious point of caution. 

We'll discuss that point tomorrow. It's a blindingly obvious point of concern, one which routinely disappears when we fall in love, once again, with those schools which (allegedly) work.

Tomorrow: A remarkable lack of concern


TUESDAY, JUNE 22, 2021

Instead, the Mathews column: How should our public schools teach math?

More specifically, should math instruction be "de-tracked?" Should higher achievers and lower achievers all take the same math classes, right through the end of tenth grade?

Should everyone wait until grade 9 to take Algebra 1? Should everyone take Geometry in grade 10? Should students be free to "accelerate" after that?

These are the questions at hand.

In last Saturday's Washington Post, a lengthy report by Laura Meckler examined the current debate concerning such questions. 

Meckler mentioned several schools or school systems which feel they've successfully "de-tracked" math. For various reasons, the prime example was a long-standing, highly-regarded school, South Side High.

Should everyone take the same math classes right through the end of tenth grade? At least as presented, this is the story from South Side:

MECKLER (6/19/21): The battle over tracking is another chapter in an intense national debate over how schools can create a more equitable system for students of color and whether changes will threaten other students, many of them White, who are benefiting from existing advantages.

Where some see a long overdue reckoning with systemic racism, others see an unsettling and overly broad focus on matters of race, and a threat to children who are succeeding in the current system.

“It tends to be a very complicated issue around socioeconomics, around race, around privilege and around ableism—who is high ability and who is not,” said Carol Corbett Burris, who de-tracked courses at South Side High School in suburban Rockville Centre, N.Y., when she was principal two decades ago and now runs the Network for Public Education, an advocacy group. “Lots of schools attempt to do it in a very well-meaning way only to get pushback.” Recent research from South Side High found that de-tracking led more students to take advanced courses later in high school, with overall scores in those classes rising or staying flat.

As reported, it sounded like math instruction at South Side High was "de-tracked" two decades ago. That passage doesn't explicitly say that South Side's de-tracking of math goes back that far, but that's pretty much how it sounded.

Most promisingly, Meckler mentioned "recent research" concerning math achievement at the school. According to Meckler, this research found that more kids were taking advanced math classes at the end of high school as a result of de-tracking. Also this:

Scores in those classes had risen, or had at least stayed flat, even as student enrollment grew.

That's what the research is said to have found. Meckler provided a link to the research. You can peruse it here.

Should public schools "de-track" math education? As becomes clear in Meckler's report, different people have different opinions. 

In her lengthy report, Meckler offers an overview of the roiling debate. The Washington Post should be congratulated for offering a glimpse of a public education issue which might actually matter to millions of kids, not just to the higher-performing handful of kids who might end up at Yale.

Should public schools "de-track" math? In Meckler's review of the topic, South Side High is the only example of de-tracking which seems to be offering upbeat claims based on actual research. 

In large part for that reason, we'd planned to focus on South Side High—it's Howard Stern's alma mater!—as we moved ahead.

Today, we announce a postponement. Yesterday, along came this column by Jay Mathews, with claims about the latest schools which have allegedly shown the world the best ways to succeed. 

Starting tomorrow, we're going to focus on Mathews' column. South Side will have to wait!

We've long been fans of Mathews' work; we share the old school system tie. When he was at Hillsdale High, we were three miles up the Alameda at Aragon, the newly-designated rival to the older, creaking school. 

We love the tone Mathews brings to his work, largely because it differs from ours. That said, our basic reaction to claims about "schools that work" tends to differ from his.

We've long been fans of Mathews' work. We aren't in love with yesterday's column, in which he reports upbeat claims made in a new book.

It's hard to evaluate the upbeat claims Mathews reports. The weaknesses in yesterday's column foreshadow the difficulties involved in evaluating claims about de-tracking math. 

It's hard to evaluate claims of this type; our news orgs rarely try. Also, we're still trying to evaluate the research about South Side High!

Should public schools "de-track" math? Would more kids end up taking advanced math classes by the time they finish high school? Would higher- and lower-achieving kids end up doing just as well in those challenging classes, possibly even better?

Those are difficult questions! In part for that reason, you'll rarely see those questions explored by the news orgs we love in Our Town.

Those are difficult questions. Also, journalists may have to pick their way through actual research! As a general matter, our highly-educated, upper-end journalists aren't strongly inclined to do that. 

Also this:

These questions have nothing to do with Trump! Why would our news orgs care?

Starting tomorrow: The latest "schools that work"

We're sorry we spoke about "dumbnification!"

MONDAY, JUNE 21, 2021

But do you believe these claims?: We're sorry that we referred to the (additional) essays in question as examples of "dumbnification."

That said, the essays appeared on the front page of the Outlook section in yesterday's Washington Post. Outlook is a very high-profile Sunday section—and we can't say our description was wrong.

One essay was written by Joshua Zeisel, "a clinical psychologist in Winston-Salem, N.C." The other essay—technically, a book review—was written by Emily Balcetis, "an associate professor of psychology at New York University."

Because it forced us to offer this further discussion, we're sorry we used the term "dumbnification." But here's the way the professor started. Do you believe this is true?

BALCETIS (6/20/21): I’ve tried a bunch of strategies to increase my intelligence, and you probably have, too. I’ve made flashcards to memorize the definitions of archaic words. I’ve subscribed to daily crosswords. I’ve eaten avocados and salmon. I studied the French language and had a brief affair with German.

What did I get for it? Mediocre scores on standardized tests. A bunch of unfinished puzzles. Shinier hair. The power to order a coffee and baguette in Paris and come in third place at a karaoke contest in Leipzig. But I can’t say any of those tactics made me noticeably smarter.

Do you believe that's true? Do you believe that this psychology professor has engaged in those strategies in the attempt to make herself smarter? 

Has she really tried eating avocados, and making flash cards with archaic words, with that goal in mind? Did she really make these hapless attempts, eventually discovering that nothing worked?

We're not sure we believe that. And it seemed to us that Zeisel's essay started out in a somewhat similar way:

ZEISEL (6/20/21): When I pledged to be a better husband and father, offering to plan our youngest’s 4th birthday party seemed like a good place to start. But as I squinted at the computer screen, trying to assemble a threadbare online invitation and wondering how to find email addresses for all her classmates’ parents, I realized it was going to be a lot harder than I’d anticipated.

The truth is, although I have been a dad for eight years, I’d never taken the lead in planning a birthday party for any of my three kids. I’d never even given these parties much thought. It was always my wife who sent the invitations, ordered the food, decided on the themes (and then redecided when a kid changed their mind a week later). She would sometimes enlist my help on the day of the party—at which point, being the dutiful, feminist husband I believe myself to be, I would gladly help out and feel good about contributing equally to the cause.

Balcetis started out by ruefully reducing herself to the level of the average rube. Zeisel started out portraying himself as a dumbbell too, but he went a bit further.

By that second paragraph, he was already mocking his pre-pandemic belief that he'd been "a dutiful, feminist husband." As he continued, we were asked to believe these further claims about his previous cluelessness:

ZEISEL (continuing directly): The pandemic changed that perception of myself. Yes, I did my share of dishes and laundry. I even cut down my work hours to be home more and helped the kids get set up for distance learning. But I soon realized that even though we both worked full-time outside the home, my wife was doing immensely more “mental labor”—the invisible, logistical tasks that make a household run smoothly, such as scheduling doctor’s visits and making plans for summer child care.

As a clinical psychologist, I was already familiar with this concept in the abstract. Research has shown that in heterosexual, dual-income households, women spend more time thinking about unpaid, family-related matters than men do. Women are also significantly more likely to keep tabs on tasks that need to be completed by both partners and are more likely to issue reminders than men are—a phenomenon I frequently discussed with couples in therapy that was perceived by men to be “nagging” and by women to be necessary because their husbands could not be counted on to do these tasks unless reminded. These roles develop not because of biological predisposition, but rather because women face heightened societal scrutiny and are usually the ones others blame if family tasks are overlooked.

Confident that I wasn’t one of those unsupportive husbands, I shared my observations with my wife one night while I was eating a pint of Ben & Jerry’s on the couch after putting the kids to bed (all by myself, no less!). She burst out laughing, marveling that I was lecturing my clients on mental loads when I didn’t understand how the concept played out in our own household. She rattled off a list of things that hadn’t crossed my mind even once over the course of the year, like acquiring masks for the children and figuring out child care for yet another pandemic summer.

I was dumbstruck. While I thought I was seeing so much that needed to be done, I was missing a whole swath of my family’s needs...

As a clinical psychologist, he'd been familiar, "in the abstract," with these (rather widely-discussed) phenomena. 

He had frequently discussed these matters with couples he was counseling, but it had never occurred to him that he was one of the slacker husbands he was counseling others about! Finally, his wife clued him in as he ate his Ben & Jerry's!

Do you believe that either of these portraits is actually true?  We're not sure we do. We're not sure we believe that the NYU psychology prof tried eating avocados to make herself smarter. We're not sure it had never occurred to the clinical psychologist that he was slacking off at home in the same way he was counseling clients about. 

It doesn't really matter, of course. (According to experts, nothing much does at this point!)

That said, these presentations struck us as an increasingly familiar form of dumbnification. In this particular form of dumbnification, the author is expected to assure us rubes that he or she is just as clueless as the rest of us are. Only then can we be asked to receive his or her expertise or advice.

In effect, we're handed a type of sitcom journalism—variants of Life With Father or possibly I Love Lucy. Before we can read these Sunday essays, we have to be assured that the authors are regular people—that they're basically Dumb Like Us.

Yesterday morning, we weren't sure we believed what these two writers said. We'll now admit that we found their opening salvos annoying. 

(At least they weren't complaining about the fact that Walmart is selling Juneteenth t-shirts. No Complaint Left Behind!)

Did those presentations on Outlook's front page involve deliberate dumbnification? That's almost the way it seemed to us, but as the dumbnification proceeds, there's no way a rube can be sure.