THURSDAY, JUNE 24, 2021
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!