SATURDAY, OCTOBER 16, 2021
With Anchorage, Alaska thrown in: In fairness to Garrison Keillor, he meant it as a joke.
It was a joke he created for a well-known radio program broadcast by NPR. The leading authority on the matter offers this overview:
Lake Wobegon is a fictional town created by Garrison Keillor as the setting of the "News from Lake Wobegon" segment of the radio program A Prairie Home Companion...It is described as a small rural town in central Minnesota, and is peopled with fictional characters and places, many of which became familiar to listeners of the broadcast.
Lake Wobegon was a fictional town, peopled with fictional characters. It wasn't an actual place. The joke was part of the monologue with which Keillor started the weekly show:
Keillor's weekly monologue about Lake Wobegon included recurring elements:
The opening words of the monologue usually were "Well, it's been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon, Minnesota, my hometown, out there on the edge of the prairie."
Lake Wobegon was called "the little town that time forgot and the decades cannot improve."
The closing words of the monologue were "That's the news from Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average."
In fairness, Keillor wasn't claiming that there was an actual town where the children were all above average. He was offering that as a joke, with the point of the joke unexplained.
We thought of Keillor's well-known joke as we read a front-page report in today's New York Times. Headline included, the news report starts like this:
SHAPIRO (10/16/21): Adams Commits, With Few Details, to Keeping Gifted Program in Schools
Eric Adams said on Friday that he would keep New York City’s elementary school gifted and talented program if, as expected, he wins the general election for mayor next month—a clear rebuke to Mayor Bill de Blasio, who recently announced plans to eliminate the program.
“There’s a new mayor next year, that mayor must evaluate how he’s going to deal with the gifted and talented program,” Mr. Adams, the Democratic nominee for mayor, said in an interview with CNN. “He can’t get rid of it until next year,” he added of Mr. de Blasio.
Asked directly whether he would eliminate the gifted program, Mr. Adams replied, “no I would not, I would expand the opportunities for accelerated learning.”
In short, Bill de Blasio, the outgoing mayor, recently said that he would scrap the city's elementary school "gifted and talented" program on his way out the door. He hadn't quite gotten around to doing this, or anything else, during his eight years as mayor.
Eric Adams, the likely incoming mayor, seemed to say that he would maintain the program, and possibly expand it in some undescribed way. We thought og Lake Wobegon when we read this later passage:
SHAPIRO: As to the gifted program, Mr. de Blasio said last week that he wanted to scrap the current system, including an admissions exam for 4-year-olds that has been heavily criticized, and start over with a new one that offers an accelerated education to every elementary school student.
Mr. Adams has yet to release his own plan for the city’s schools, and he has reversed course previously on at least one contentious education issue. But he made it clear on Friday that he was not going to let the outgoing mayor dictate a policy that has major implications for the nation’s largest school system.
De Blasio said that he wants to "offer an accelerated education" to every elementary school student.
In fairness, it's a pretty thought. When we read that part of today's report, we thought of Lake Wobegon, the fictional town where the children are all above average.
In actual towns, the various children, as a general matter, really aren't all above average. On its face, the very idea doesn't seem to make sense. That's the fact which served to make Keillor's statement a joke.
That said, so what? To de Blasio, playing hero ball, the children should all be offered "an accelerated education" in New York City's elementary schools.
On its face, that doesn't exactly seem to make sense. When you look at actual data, the notion may seem even less plausible, even perhaps a bit puzzling.
Yesterday, we suggested that the tribunes of our self-impressed tribe should stop making transparently stupid statements every time they speak. Today, we'll supply an add-on:
People like de Blasio should stop announcing to the world that they don't have the slightest idea about the interests and needs of kids in our low-income schools. They should stop the hero ball and the showboating. They should stop pretending to care.
Should every child in New York City receive "an accelerated education?" As noted, it's a pretty idea. but here are some actual data:
Scale scores, New York City Public Schools
All students, Grade 4 math, 2019 Naep
90th percentile: 276.06
75th percentile: 255.49
50th percentile: 231.73
25th percentile: 207.40
10th percentile: 184.36
In Grade 4 math, are the children all above average in the New York City schools? Just for a moment, let's madden ourselves with the boredom of a trip to the actual world:
In 2019, the average public school student in the United States scored 241.60 on the Naep's Grade 4 math test. (The Naep is the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the federally-administered "gold standard" of domestic educational testing. For all Naep data, start here.)
The average fourth grader in New York City scored ten points lower than that. According to a very rough rule of thumb which is often applied to Naep scores, that would mean that the average New York City kid was one year behind his nationwide counterparts at this point in time.
That's a very rough comparison, but let's move on from there. According to the federal data, ten percent of New York City kids scored at 184.36 or below.
(Nationwide, the corresponding score was 198.19. Gotham's tenth percentile child scored well below his counterpart nationwide.)
That seems to mean that ten percent of New York City's kids weren't performing anywhere near the national average on this measure of Grade 4 math. De Blasio has sat on his ascot with respect to this matter for the past eight years, but as he galavants out of office, he has now announced that even kids who are struggling in school to this extent should he "offered an accelerated education."
There's no way to have sufficient contempt for a tribal figurehead like this. There's no way to have sufficient contempt for the self-impressed tribe which has ignored the needs of those struggling kids since at least the 1960s, fluffing ourselves as we go.
The tribe in question is our own blue tribe, and our own blue tribe is routinely heinous. Our own blue tribe is dumb as a rock. Beyond that, we don't actually care.
It's hard to have sufficient contempt for what we read in today's front-page report. Having said that, we'll add this:
Yesterday, we spent a lot of time watching citizens in Anchorage, Alaska appear before the Anchorage city council to testify against a proposed mask mandate.
As a general matter, those people seemed to belong to the other, red tribe. We'd call that videotape sobering.
(We'd also note that the videotape didn't show what Rachel Maddow said it did in her latest bit of tribal propaganda / pandering.)
You have that sobering videotape from Anchorage—but then too, you have our own blue tribe. It's hard to have sufficient contempt for the way de Blasio has behaved, but our own blue tribe is so plainly uncaring, and so dumb, that this sort of thing has been the norm for decades.
After sitting on his ascot for eight years, Mayor de Blasio made a pleasing statement last week. On its face, his statement doesn't seem to make sense, but it's par for the course from our tribe—and everyone can see this but us.
How should New York City organize its schools? That's a daunting question. There's no easy answer to that.
That said, we've offered a tiny selection of data today. Our own blue tribe, so full of self-admiration, is rarely willing to bore itself with information like that.
(You will never see data like those in the Times. Those struggling children don't even exist on our tribe's two cable channels, where they talk about no one but Trump and how we'll soon have him locked up.)
Garrison Keillor meant it as a joke! Our own blue true, so full of self-regard, may perhaps have been too dumb (and too transparently uncaring) to understand this fact.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep. Those meetings in Anchorage were a sobering mess—but here within our own blue towns, can we be said to be sharper?
Once more for the road: The average fourth grader, nationwide, scored 241.60 on the Naep math test. Ten percent of New York City's kids scored 184 or below.
Those numbers seem to describe a truly gigantic "achievement gap"—a gap which is hard to quantify in colloquial terms. Within our tribe, we're so dumb, and so uncaring, that we're inclined to think that those struggling kids need "an accelerated education."
To us, that story feels good and it makes perfect sense. Everyone else is able to see what this seems to mean about us.
That tape from Anchorage is sobering. Then again, what about us?