WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 15, 2021
Then too, that statistical howler: Where the feelings are very strong, the head may lead us astray.
This can even happen within our blue tribe! Consider a detailed, deeply depressing report in the New York Times Sunday magazine.
The lengthy report was written by Casey Parks; her report was deeply depressing. It concerned the appalling conditions which obtain in the Holmes County Consolidated School District, a badly underfunded rural school district in the heart of Mississippi's high-poverty Delta region.
Assuming her reporting is accurate—we know of no reason to doubt that it is—Parks' detailed reporting is deeply depressing and highly admirable. Her report appeared as part of the magazine's Education Issue, the king of periodic publication designed to lead subscribers to think that the New York Times actually cares about the kids in our low-income schools.
One such person is Harvey Ellington, age 17, a senior at Holmes County Central High, the only high school in this lightly-populated rural district.
According to Parks, Holmes County is "the poorest county in the [nation's] poorest state." That helps explain the horrific conditions she describes in her deeply depressing report, but it's also part of a major problem with her journalistic method.
How bad are conditions in the Holmes County schools? How depressing is this report?
Conditions are very bad; the report is deeply depressing. Near the start of the lengthy piece, Parks offers a quick overview:
PARKS (9/12/21): Ellington was 7 the first time someone told him the state of Mississippi considered Holmes a failing district. Holmes had earned a D or an F almost every year since then, and Ellington felt hollowed out with embarrassment every time someone rattled off the ranking. Technically, the grade measured how well, or how poorly, Ellington and his classmates performed on the state’s standardized tests, but he knew it could have applied to any number of assessments. His school didn’t have clubs, and even before the pandemic, they hardly went on field trips. Every year, teaching positions sat unfilled for months at a time. The football team often made the playoffs, but the field at the high school was inadequate, and so the squad had to travel 10 miles west to play outside an elementary school.
Based upon the reporting which followed, the lack of field trips and clubs is the least of this school district's problems. In the following passage, James Henderson, a newly-arrived (and first-time) superintendent, conducts a meeting with some teachers at one of the district's grade schools:
PARKS: The teachers remained quiet as they waited for someone else to speak. Finally, a language-arts teacher said that most classrooms didn’t have textbooks. No one had science books, another teacher said, and the few reading materials instructors had were so outdated they didn’t even cover the skills kids would need to demonstrate on state tests. A music teacher who taught reading had grown so frustrated that he started bringing his own printer from home each week to run off scans of another instructor’s book.
The teachers nodded. Most said they were paying for basic supplies themselves, though they earn less than teachers elsewhere do. The average teacher in Holmes made $44,000. Statewide, teachers earned an average of $47,000.
A kindergarten teacher explained that the county still didn’t have enough buses or drivers to operate them and so they picked up kids in shifts. Half the school’s students didn’t arrive until the first period was nearly over. The school didn’t have enough teachers either. Half the instructors were uncertified, and almost all of second grade was being taught by substitutes, meaning kids showed up for third-grade multiplication lessons not knowing how to add.
Under the circumstances, and making certain assumptions about the local cost of living, that $44,000 salary doesn't strike us as shockingly low.
A great deal else in this report should in fact border on shocking. Here's a description of the high school Ellington attends:
PARKS: Every weekday, Henderson explained, 800 of the county’s teenagers crammed into a 61-year-old high school that had no air-conditioning, no heat and, some days, no running water. Most of the classrooms smelled like mold, and the hallways flooded when it rained. The outside was so antiquated that prospective teachers sometimes took one look, then peeled out of the parking lot.
What's up with flooding when it rains? Later, Parks offered this account of one such rainy day:
PARKS: When the bell rang, a social-studies teacher passed out a quiz to six students. The test was supposed to assess their knowledge of World War II and the Harlem Renaissance, but the teenagers seemed distracted. It was raining. The rooms were musty, and the hallway outside had a thin layer of water covering the linoleum. The [students] could hear their classmates, laughing and splashing down the halls.
By midmorning, both the high school and the middle school were starting to flood. On his way to lunch, Ellington passed a woman who told him she was a new substitute English teacher.
“Nice to meet you,” Ellington said. “How would you feel if we could get a new school and school funds and new businesses here?”
The teacher laughed. “I would love that. Y’all definitely need a new school, especially with what’s going on in the bathrooms.”
“The bathroom’s still not working?” Ellington asked. “That’s against the law to have us here.”
Bathrooms had broken down the week before after a clay pipe deteriorated. Maintenance crews had replaced the pipe, but now, the teacher explained to Ellington, as the rain overwhelmed the building’s plumbing, several toilets had stopped functioning again.
By 12:30 p.m., the high school’s water fountains were running brown, and every bathroom at the middle school had stopped working, too, so Henderson decided to close both schools for the day. A bell rang, and Ellington ambled into the wet hallways. Water splashed against his khakis, and other boys yelled and pushed their way to the front of the school. When Ellington made it out, he searched for his bus, but he didn’t see it.
Eventually, after the teenagers milled around the parking lot for half an hour, the principal came through screaming. The district didn’t have enough buses to release both the middle and high school students at once, he explained. “Move back to your A-block class now,” the principal shouted. “Move. Let’s go.”
Ellington headed inside, but when he reached his classroom, no other students were there.
Throughout the report, such descriptions were juxtaposed with the hopefulness and determination of young Ellington, who understands that his unfortunate circumstances may have badly compromised his possibilities in future years.
We don't remember when we found a report so depressing. Two bits of history came to mind:
In April 1967, at the behest of civil rights lawyer Marian Wright, Robert Kennedy toured this same Mississippi Delta region, conducting a fact-finding tour concerning deep poverty. He also toured impoverished regions in Appalachia that same year.
In those early days of the War on Poverty, Kennedy's journey was widely reported. Parks' report emerges from that same Delta region. While the poverty there today is almost surely less extreme, the conditions she described were horrifically bad.
We also thought of Jonathan Kozol's first book, Death at an Early Age. It appeared that same year, 1967, and it described horrific conditions in the Boston public schools—rather, in a horrible Boston school which enrolled mostly black kids, including the memorable Stephen. The book began, and begins, as shown:
Stephen is eight years old. A picture of him standing in front of the bulletin board on Arab bedouins shows a little light-brown person staring with unusual concentration at a chosen spot upon the floor. Stephen is tiny, desperate, unwell. Sometimes he talks to himself. He moves his mouth as if he were talking. At other times he laughs out loud in class for no apparent reason. He is also an indescribably mild and unmalicious child. He cannot do any of his school work very well. His math and reading are poor. In Third Grade he was in a class that had substitute teachers much of the year. Most of the year before that, he had a row of substitute teachers too. He is in the Fourth Grade now but his work is barely at the level of the Second. Nobody has complained about the things that have happened to Stephen because he does not have any mother or father.
Stephen was tiny, desperate, unwell. He was also an indescribably mild, unmalicious child.
That said, a statistical claim at the start of Parks' report never should have been published. Tomorrow, we'll start with that statistical statement, and then we'll move on to Charles Blow.
For today, we'll close with a query:
Our blue tribe's skill levels are quite low. If it weren't for misleading statistical claims, would we humans ever make any such claims at all?
Tomorrow: Commenters buy Charles Blow