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

SATURDAY, JUNE 26, 2021

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!


17 comments:

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

    What's with this 'caring' claptrap, dear Bob?

    What low-income people might appreciate is your liberal-globalist establishment not shipping their blue-collar jobs abroad. But then shipping their blue-collar jobs abroad is what your liberal cult is all about, nicht wahr?

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  2. According to the naep website, from 2003 (the first year data is available specifically for Chicago) to 2019, the average naep score for black students in mathematics grade 8 went from 245 to 264, an increase of 19 points, whereas for the same time period, the national average score for black students in grade 8 mathematics increased by just 8 points, from 252 to 260.

    That is a significant difference. Did Chicago schools do something specific to bring this about? Does Chenoweth tell us what it might be in her book? It’s worth examining.

    But Somerby wants to criticize Mathews and Chenoweth, so he complains about the ‘achievement gap.’ It seems to me the improvement in scores is a positive good, because it represents increased opportunities for Chicago’s black kids, regardless of how they compare to other racial groups.

    Besides, Somerby has recently opined that ‘low-income (ie black (wink wink))’ children suffer from a word gap before they even get to school, so if he believes that is still true in Chicago, then how to explain the rise in test scores? Cheating?

    Maybe Somerby’s readers should find out what Chenoweth has to say before buying Somerby’s usual condemnation.

    (By the way, Asians outscore whites by 18 points on average, or about 1.8 school years. Do we need an intervention for white kids? And yes, white kids’ scores also rose during that time frame in Chicago. Isn’t that also good?)

    ReplyDelete
  3. I ran into a similar statistical problem at work. My parent company had a report showing their average rate discount. During a period when rates were declining for all companies, these reports showed no decline. I asked the actuary in charge of the reports if he ever audited the branches. He said auditing wasn't permitted.

    In this case, like the one Bob discusses, there was an incentive to falsify numbers in order to look better. Over a career, I learned that many people just don't believe in numbers. For these people, it's not wrong to manipulate numbers. They can feel perfectly moral while doing so.

    BYW a question I wish Bob would answer is why the NAEP is immune from cheating

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Long ago, when I worked for an insurance company, our training said that we observed the highest ethical standards.

      Delete
    2. Here is a concept that conservatives don't seem to understand. If you are going to allege fraud or cheating, you need to present evidence. An accusation is not enough.

      NAEP is not immune to cheating. Cheating depends on the needs and motives of the cheaters. In students, it happens when they are desperate and there is something at stake. Same with administrators. Districts that tie test scores to funding (as the government has done too) encourage cheating by administrators. Districts that base teacher pay on student test scores encourage cheating by teachers, especially to the extent that the test is viewed as an unfair measure or something teachers cannot affect with effort. The NAEP tries to control cheating by eliminating the reasons why someone might want to cheat on it.

      Delete
  4. Liberals are the ones who notice racial disparities in housing, health care, wealth, education, policing. But when they point out disparities in policing, Somerby claims it’s imaginary, and chides them for not ‘understanding’ that race itself is imaginary and that it’s divisive to discuss it.

    But here, he is the one bringing up race in order to highlight the racial disparities in naep test scores, and condemns liberals for something they didn’t say. He asserts that liberals would attack Chenoweth as a racist (‘R’ bombs) for saying what happened in Chicago is a good thing without acknowledging the so-called racial ‘achievement gap’, which, if only liberals knew about it, would cause them to hurl R-bombs.

    And since Somerby notices the racial disparity here, does he think it’s racist for Chenoweth or Mathews not to mention it? Or do they?

    Here’s a blurb about one of her previous books:

    ‘How It's Being Done" offers much-needed help to educators, providing detailed accounts of the ways in which unexpected schools--those with high-poverty and high-minority student populations--have dramatically boosted student achievement and diminished (and often eliminated) achievement gaps. "How It"s Being Done" builds on Karin Chenoweth's widely hailed earlier volume, "It's Being Done," providing specific information about how such schools have exceeded expectations and met with unprecedented levels of success.’

    (Emphasis mine)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. In the liberal world, African-Americans can never be responsible for bad things that happen to them. It's OK for liberals to note black mistreatment by police because that's the police's fault. It's OK to note lower average salaries, because that's (supposedly) the fault of racism. But, liberals can't blame racism when another minority group is 5 years ahead of black students (on average) in school, so liberals ignore this gap.

      P.S. Bob, a liberal DOES note the gap, illustaating Conquest's first law of politics: "Everyone is conservative about what he knows best."

      Delete
    2. "Everyone is conservative about what he knows best."
      That explains why you never meet a conservative who understands basic mathematics, or empathy.

      Delete
    3. "But, liberals can't blame racism when another minority group is 5 years ahead of black students (on average) in school, so liberals ignore this gap."

      David, you can only blame black kids for their educational attainment if kids educated themselves. In real life, kids need effective teachers, school resources, literate and involved parents, lack of distractions due to poor health, bad eyesight or hearing, asthma and other chronic illnesses and allergies, and so on. These things, external to the child's own motivation, matter a great deal to learning. So does the mother's health while the baby is still in the womb and the early childhood experiences in the home. Do you blame the child for the absence of high quality preschool care? It too matters to later educational achievement.

      Liberals do not ignore the learning gap. Liberals devote their efforts to supporting child learning by addressing the obstacles a child faces, including the things I listed. And that is in no way conservative, since conservatives (much like you) want to blame the child and spend money on other things (such as lowering their own taxes).

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