TIMES AND SCHOOLS: How severe is New York City's crisis?

SATURDAY, MAY 21, 2022

A, B and C, long ago: Long ago and far away, we were teaching fifth and sixth graders in the Baltimore City Schools.

We started in the fall of 1969; we left in the early 1980s. We came for the draft deferment, left because the time had come when we pretty much had to.

Along the way, we spent seven full years teaching fifth and sixth grades. We also spent two full years teaching junior high math, with time off for research endeavors.

In the grade school years, we generally taught the kids who were judged to be farthest "behind." Some of these kids really were far "behind." In some cases, we didn't know how they'd received that designation.

In some of these cases, the kids in question had already repeated one or two grades. They were fifth or sixth graders by designation, but they might be eighth graders by age—and they might be reading on (something like) "third grade level."

(You can't measure a child's "reading level" the same way you can measure her height. Also, test scores are higher today.)

These kids hadn't grown up in "high-literacy" homes. As a general matter, they hadn't had the types of reading experiences which are enjoyed by children from higher literacy homes—experiences which may begin before the new-born child even comes home from the hospital.

One of the interesting things about growing older involves the surprises you may experience as you remember the people you've known along the way. Somewhat oddly, we remember some of those fifth and sixth grade kids as some of the best people we've ever known.

In the past, we've mentioned three girls—A, B and C—who we taught for both fifth and sixth grades. By this time, we had come to believe that the best way for kids to learn to read and write was by doing a lot of reading and writing, so we would spend time, every day, just letting everybody do that, in whatever manner they chose.

Often, they were reading paperback books we had bought ourselves, generally six at a time. These were books about more mature subjects written on accessible "reading levels."

In the past, we've described some of the things we saw during those sessions. For example:

We would see A, B and C sitting together in a small circle, gravely listening to one another as they took turns reading aloud from one of these high-interest books. (A readable biography of Florence Nightingale comes to mind.)

A few years later, B asked us for help with a terrible personal matter. (As it turned out, there was nothing we could do, or at least that's what we decided.) Some years after that, A telephoned us out of the blue, telling us what was going on with other kids from that class.

When we look back on A, B and C, we can still see them sitting in their reading circle, having the kind of experience, at age 13, that other kids have at much earlier ages. Especially in the case of A and B, we think of them as two of the best people we've ever known.

It's odd to think about people so young in that way. But our memory breaks through to let us know what we actually saw way back then.

Due to our nation's brutal racial history; due to our nation's unfortunate class structure; some kids grow up having a bevy of reading experiences. Other kids do not. 

Except for the kids who lose their way, they're all good, decent kids. Similar good and decent kids are found all over the world.

At the New York Times (and elsewhere), our tribe doesn't pay a lot of attention to the interests of these good, decent kids. 

At the Times, they produce highly performative front-page reports about the interests of the top few percent. Good, decent kids like A, B and C rarely make the cut. 

When a new mayor suggests a new plan to address the needs of those kids, the Times assigns an inexperienced non-specialist to report on the mayor's proposal. Little experience or expertise is brought to bear in reporting the new mayor's new plan.

(This isn't that young reporter's doing or fault.)

Our tribe is convinced that we're the good, decent, very smart people. The Others are known to be deplorable, irredeemable—racist, misogynist, stupid.

According to legions of major experts, this is a classic human mistake. According to experts, our brains are wired to produce such beliefs at times of tribal conflict.

How bad is the "literary crisis" the new mayor's plan is (said to be) designed to "turn around?" Also, is there any serious reason to think that the new mayor's plan could or will accomplish any such task?

At the Times, you'll never find out! The New York Times [HEART] the kids who might get into Stuyvesant High, then move on to Yale. 

The Times shows every few signs of caring about kids like A, B and C.

Unless they can posture about "segregation," the New York Times doesn't ask us to think about the needs of those millions of kids. The Times likes to perform about "segregation"—and it likes kids who might end up at Yale, especially if they aren't of Asian descent.

A, B and C weren't headed for Yale! B, who is no longer living, spent her (somewhat shortened) adult life as a home health care worker.

Back when she was in sixth grade, she was eighth grade by age. She was bigger than a lot of the other kids and she was a Jehovah's Witness.

She took a lot of teasing. This badly hurt her gentle sensibility.

Also, she sat in a circle with A and C, listening gravely as three girls took turns having a series of belated reading experiences. Those three girls were very good people. 

How bad is the crisis in New York City? How do kids in New York City compare to their peers from around the state of New York? To their peers from around the nation?

You'll rarely read about such boring topics in the New York Times. Next week, we'll show you the data from the 2019 Naep and we'll answer as best we can.

Our tribe doesn't much care about A, B and C. Also, very few members of our tribe are aware of this ongoing fact.


  1. "When a new mayor suggests a new plan to address the needs of those kids, the Times assigns an inexperienced non-specialist to report on the mayor's proposal. Little experience or expertise is brought to bear in reporting the new mayor's new plan."

    When Somerby entered the Baltimore schools, he had no teaching experience and little training -- on the 6 week summer orientation provided by Teach for America, which included nothing on classroom management and focused on criticizing traditional teacher education and teaching methods. He was thrown into classrooms in the poorest schools and expected to help kids struggling with reader problems, as he describes above.

    Yet Somerby criticizes this NY Times reporter for not being a specialized education reporter -- the NY Times has no such thing on staff. She does have 5 years of reporting experience, something Somerby didn't have when he started teaching struggling students in Baltimore.

    Somerby has never admitted his own deficiencies. He seems to think his teaching made him sufficiently experienced to write about education issues himself. But his experience was in the 60s-1980, a very long time ago. Teaching has changed since then (something Somerby seems to think is bad, faddish). At least Fadulu has been in the public schools since 1980, giving her more recent experience than Somerby's by a great deal.

    Somerby seems to have a vested interest in knocking training and expertise, then he complains that too little progress is being made, or that some reporter doesn't write an article as he would have written it. But he himself has nothing that what make him qualified to evaluate Fadulu, much less help those kids back in the 1970s.

  2. What does Somerby mean when he says he took some time off while a Baltimore school teacher, in order to do "research"? That is not part of any teacher's job description. It seems especially unlikely given that he was assigned to teach math, a subject chronically short of teachers. I find myself wondering whether he was on suspension for something, such as being a loudmouth about the possibility of school district cheating on standardized tests. The idea of Somerby, without any background in teaching whatsoever, beyond his stint in the classroom, doing any kind of "research" is ridiculous.

    Glad that draft deferment worked out for him, though. I'll bet that the good, decent A and B were happy for him. C, perhaps not so much, but maybe she expected to actually be taught something, instead of set off in a group to work on their own, the blind leading the blind. Students aren't trained as reading specialists either, but hey, if Somerby can teach, why can't A and B, despite being 13 years old?

  3. "The Times shows every few signs of caring about kids like A, B and C."

    This all rests on Somerby's assertion that the NY Times does not write articles about struggling children. As shown yesterday, when I listed many such articles, this is a fabrication by Somerby. The NY Times regularly publishes articles about other aspects of education besides the 1% who are upset about not getting admitted to the science high schools that ensure a strong application to get into Yale, as if the black kids didn't deserve the same shot at Yale as the Asian kids who dominate such admissions today.

    Somerby is telling his version of a big lie. You can check for yourself using Google and easily verify that the neglect Somerby claims at the NY Times just doesn't exist. But maybe Somerby, the big researcher in the 80s while he was supposedly teaching, never learned to use Google very well? Anything is possible.

  4. Bob, I have been reading the dailyhowler off and on for many years. I confess some time ago I grew weary of the style and voice you have adopted for your commentary. Sometimes it just obscures the points you are trying to make. Sometimes it is misleading and sometime I think it is just plain wrong. What I have always thought is that your experience teaching in Baltimore 50 years ago left an indelible mark on you. Most people, even very well intended people, have no idea how much the unfairness of the world impacts the most powerless, children in particular. You do. My advice is that you stop wasting your anger on the many people among our liberal tribe who are oblivious or that at least you redirect it in ways that are more useful, which the dailyhowler no longer is. A, B, and C and all the A;s, B's and C's still in our schools deserve better than what is now more and more just a vanity project on your part.

    1. I don't think most liberals are oblivious to the problems of black children in low income schools. Aside from that, I agree.

    2. I was careful to say many liberals and not most. This is part of the problem I have with Bob. There are indeed some members of our liberal tribe who are oblivious. I know some. They are not that hard to find among the media elite. But Bob's critiques are almost always sweeping and overgeneralized and make no allowances for the complexity of the problems. I think his anger is genuine and not unjustified. Anyone who has taught or worked in schools, particularly in poorer areas (urban, rural and not just black) knows we could and should do better. But TDH doesn't seem to do anything to move things forward. It is more and more the cranky carping of someone who once had valid gripes.

    3. I don't think there are many liberals who are oblivious either. "Some" is not enough to characterize the whole group. The media elite are not liberal necessarily.

      Yes, working in the schools is frustrating, but the people who are working to improve them are liberals, not conservatives. Blaming those who are already trying to help seems pointless.

      If I thought Somerby genuinely cared about the schools, I might have more sympathy for his rants, but it seems like he is using the schools to batter liberals and media figures as a political tactic. I also resent that he used the schools to evade the draft. Someone with actual integrity would have been a conscientious objector. Those black kids in Baltimore deserved better than Somerby was equipped to give them.

    4. IMO liberals are generally NOT oblivious to the plight of poor people. What they ARE oblivious to is how well or how badly the attempted remedies are working. E.g., they support BLM, even though BLM has led to a big increase in black murder victims. https://nypost.com/2022/05/20/anti-cop-pols-yawn-as-slay-spike-hits-black-americans-hardest/
      E.g., liberals support Head Start, even though studies show no lasting benefit. https://www.heritage.org/education/report/head-start-earns-f-no-lasting-impact-children-first-grade

    5. David, you are misunderstanding the head start studies. They show benefits in non-academic measurements that do last. The academic benefits disappear because the support for the children disappears when the program stops.

      BLM has nothing to do with increases in black murders. Gang intervention programs DO decrease black murders by addressing violence in their communities. Most experts consider this to be caused by the drug trade, which was not started by black people, and certainly not started by BLM.

  5. "We would see A, B and C sitting together in a small circle, gravely listening to one another as they took turns reading aloud from one of these high-interest books. (A readable biography of Florence Nightingale comes to mind.)"

    Why would a "readable biography" of Florence Nightingale be of "high interest" to three 13-year old girls from Baltimore? Does Somerby know anything about Florence Nightingale? Aside from being female, what would be of interest about her life, to three young girls in 1970's Baltimore?

    1. Why wouldn't it be of interest ? The implication of your comment is that kids can only be interested in something that is very close to their own experience. I think you're selling them short.

    2. I read such a book in school and found it boring, and I generally like biographies. It is about a war that those girls likely never heard of, in a part of the world (not well described) that is outside their experience too (Crimean war). There is little in it about what Nightingale thought or felt, but mostly a summary of things she did, which also tends to be boring for 13 year old girls. It isn't even about medicine, which might have appealed to B.

      When you assign kids to do group work, unless you closely monitor them, they tend to drift off task and spend their group time talking about other things. The new program by the Mayor involves one-on-one work with struggling readers. This is what Somerby denigrates when he dismisses the new program.

    3. You read such a book ? Was it the same one A,B and C read all those years ago ? I sincerely hope you are right about the Mayor's program. There have been many new initiatives in the world of public schools that have proved to be less than useful, indeed even faddish. But Bob is certainly too dismissive. I for one and happy to see the Mayor give this so much attention.

    4. It was mostly likely the same (or a similar one), because I am of that age. If you stop trying new initiatives, it will be hard to make progress. Education does implement new stuff all the time, but it has also made impressive strides over the past 30 years. Mocking the changes strikes me as self-defeating in the face of such obvious progress (across all racial groups). As I pointed out elsewhere, this particular program uses an approach that has been widely applied in private schools. Somerby found a dismissive remark about inconclusive studies in Wikipedia and stopped reading. There is controversy about the term dyslexia and it is also difficult to do conclusive education studies because of the inability to manipulate variables and show causality, but that doesn't mean you don't try new things.

      There are some teachers who dislike new programs and resist inservice training and requirements for revised curricula and methods. They want to keep doing the same things they have always done, and they are convinced they work because of their focus on the kids who learn well. Somerby will always get laughs from a comedy routine that is critical of new initiatives. We also had them at the college level and they were revealed to us in the meetings we had just before the start of each school year. It is easy to get cynical about them, but blaming schools for trying to improve reading of those with learning disabilities goes beyond that natural tendency.

      Note also that Somerby didn't like the last Democratic Mayor of NYC and he doesn't like this one either, even though he has just started and is trying to improve education for poor kids. I think he has a political ulterior motive with this criticism. What would the Mayor have to do to get Somerby's approval? Nothing?

  6. You know you are, but what are you?

  7. Why does Somerby always tell us, over and over and over, that black people, often the ones he ultimately trashes, are good, decent people. Does he think that we will not consider anyone black to be good and decent? Or does he want us to know that the ones he talks about are some of the good ones, not like those other bad, indecent black people?

    Somerby tells us that A and B (not so much C, who apparently never contacted him again), are "the best" four distinct times by name, and several more times as part of a general praise of all of the kids he taught. This is overboard to the point that I wonder whether he actually doesn't think this about any of his kids. It is protesting too much, in my opinion. But it is sickening to hear him fall all over himself reassuring us (and himself?) that these are good decent kids, when none of us ever thought otherwise -- why would we?

    And this oddness makes me very glad that Somerby left the classroom. Since he clearly had no idea how to help these kids, it is better for him to step aside and let someone who cared enough to take some education classes do the job.

    1. "Why does Somerby always tell us, over and over and over, that black people, often the ones he ultimately trashes, are good, decent people. Does he think that we will not consider anyone black to be good and decent? Or does he want us to know that the ones he talks about are some of the good ones, not like those other bad, indecent black people?"

      Geez, is everything proof of latent racism to you?

    2. Explain how this is not odd? Do you go around calling every black person you mention "a good decent person"? Wouldn't it sound kind of racist if you did?

    3. "Explain how this is not odd? Do you go around calling every black person you mention 'a good decent person'?"

      Bob says this about all kinds of people, some of whom he then criticizes harshly. I just don't think it's at all healthy to see such an innocuous statement and be inclined to ascribe the worst motives to it. There's plenty to criticize about Bob. But he doesn't have to be a devil who hates black people.

    4. You are missing the fact that Somerby mostly harshly criticizes black journalist, professors, authors and politicians.

      It would make sense if he were ever criticizing conservatives and had to declare that they are good, decent people because it is not assumed given their penchant for doing evil. That isn't the situation. He reserves those declarations for mostly black people, who he has singled out for criticism, like Zadulu, who he keeps saying did nothing wrong, except her article has now been the focus of criticism for days now.

      If Somerby doesn't have a low opinion of black people (hate is too strong a word, I think), why does he feel the need to keep telling us he thinks these are good, decent people. Although he has stopped saying that about Don Lemon and Ta-Nehisi Coates, come to think of it. And he never calls Rachel good and decent.

      And there were four "innocuous statements" to the effect that A, B (but not C) were good decent people. Four!

      I've been suspecting Somerby of racism for several decades, but with Trump, he decided to come out of the closet. Trump had that effect on lots of people. It doesn't make racism any more acceptable. If Somerby doesn't want to be suspected of racism, he should stop behaving like a racist.

      Personally, I think he expected to make a difference for those black kids in his classes, with his youthful enthusiasm, pure heart, and assurances from Teach for America that this was all he needed to turn public education around -- John Holt said so. When he found out that teaching was difficult, I think he got angry and frustrated at his kids and their stubbornness. I think he acquired the belief that black kids can't learn (since they couldn't learn with him) because of their troubled racial past, and has been trying to convince education of this since he left teaching. His use of NAEP scores is always to show the intransigence of the gaps, no matter how much objective improvement there is in the actual scores. He wants us to believe teaching them is hopeless, since it was hopeless for him, and that will vindicate him by making it the kids' fault instead of his own -- for being underprepared and undereducated in how education works.

      I don't consider that racism. I consider it ego-protective and I think Somerby is a narcissist, as are many in the entertainment industry. I think his attitudes toward black kids are related to his ego-needs, but he holds racist attitudes to justify his own failures.

      If someone kept calling me a good, decent person, over and over, while criticizing me, I would know that he felt exactly the opposite. Sometimes you just can't be so literal. People are complex, if you only pay attention to surface, you won't understand much about them.

      I could be entirely wrong about Somerby's motives, but his behavior would still require some explanation because it is truly odd.

    5. "I think he acquired the belief that black kids can't learn"

      I think it's odd that you ascribe such horrible beliefs to Somerby, seemingly out of nowhere. I can't help but think there's something freudian going on. Are these Bob's thoughts, or your repressed thoughts that you project on Bob?

      See how easy it is insinuate?

    6. See how easy it is *to* insinuate?

    7. I am not ascribing this to him. He has said it in so many words when discussing the intransigent gaps on the NAEP. He has repeatedly pointed out that despite increasing scores, the gaps remain. What do you think he means by that? He then goes on to disparage any attempts to address the gaps.

      If Somerby's name were David, he would sound just like David in Cal, who never misses an opportunity to tell us that Head Start is a waste of money.

      I'm not making this up about him.

  8. "B, who is no longer living, spent her (somewhat shortened) adult life as a home health care worker."

    People in this occupation are doing God's work. This help is so important to the families dealing with such issues! Somerby contrasts B with those who went to Yale, but on what basis? There is dignity in all work, but helping others is important no matter how little or much she ultimately learned to read. Yet here Somerby portrays her as an example of failure, when she is clearly not. Shame on you, Somerby.

    Perhaps is Somerby spent more time helping others, he might be less morose. There are studies now showing that helping others alleviates depression. He should try it some time.

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  10. Dear Howler.

    Thought you might be interested in the following op-ed that the Daily News ran on March 29, the day NY State's Testing Program began to be given to 1.2 million 3rd through 8th grade students.

    The title: "Admit it, testing our kids has been a failure." tells you the story. The piece calls attention to the emperor's clothes.


    No need to engage in any discussion involving the nonsense data that the testing program has generated for 20 years--since NCLB. The use of the state test results to measure achievement, student progress or sub-group scoring gaps remains a mandated waste of time that belies the worthlessness of this dead-end exercise.

    NAEP offers the kind of assessment model we should be pursuing as part of a composite that gives much weight to student performance in class all year long.


    1. Naep scores cannot be tracked at an individual school or student level. Please explain why you think they are preferable to or better than the state tests.

    2. NAEP allows for trend analysis. These exams are not individual or school-level measures. That is, the do not profess to be more than what they are.

      They take about an hour to administer to a sample of students (approx. 3500 each in Reading and Math in NYS) every two years. They are well-calibrated and credibly reflect the nature of student learning--incremental movement over time, rather than the roller coaster ride we get from different test publishers who deliver statewide results at high cost and DO NOT answer questions about student achievement or school effectiveness -- a massively costly enterprise with no ROI. (See my article.)

      Moreover, when the spring test scores are reported over the summer, they have little, if any instructional value. It's time for the feds to give up on their testing mandate, which has provided them no mechanism of accountability and coerced states to administer testing programs that have not pointed the way to reducing the scoring gaps between minority and white students.

    3. And naep testing has been around for 40-50 years. How exactly has it helped teachers and students? Has it ended the gaps?

    4. I didn't know that it was the function of exams to close score gaps. Much as it is not the purpose of blood tests per se to reduce anemia.

    5. You were the one who complained about state tests not “pointing the way to reducing gaps”. Has the naep pointed the way to this?

    6. As far as commenters go, they don't get any more ignorant and partisan than mh.

    7. @4:45 falsifies his own statement with his own comment.

      Neither the NAEP nor the state test is intended to diagnose reading problems. You need assessment by a specialist for that -- which is what the article was saying can cost over $1000 and is unaffordable for low income parents, and the school district presumably. That suggests that at least part of the gap is related to the different incomes of white and black parents. The latter are more likely to afford the help needed by students who are struggling with reading, who are estimated to be 10-20% of all students.

      Somerby seems to be unaware that this latest NAEP (2019) is the first time the schools have been permitted to include special ed students and English language learners among the kids tested. It likely makes a difference whether NYC chose to do so or not, if you are going to compare across cities, urban vs rural schools, and across ethnic groups (Hispanic vs white vs black), and makes it problematic to compare current students vs past students.

      I am curious to see whether Somerby blithely presents his figures without taking that into consideration. It will be fun watching the big NAEP expert fall on his face. The connection between NAEP and learning disabilities is so tenuous as to be ridiculous anyway, but Somerby keeps promising to make some point using those scores, which I think are largely irrelevant to this discussion.

  11. I am feeling sorry for student C, who Somerby clearly doesn't like as well as A and B (his clear favorite). Bet she was the one who wanted to go to Yale.

  12. The point of describing A, B, & C is to show that A & B wanted to keep in touch with Somerby -- he is bragging. His description of what the girls were doing in his class says nothing good about his attempts to help them. It illustrates that he didn't know what to do with them, other than to keep them busy. He doesn't say so, but he is illustrating what the new program will replace, hopefully, in the NYC schools.

  13. “we had come to believe that the best way for kids to learn to read and write was by doing a lot of reading and writing,”

    What about phonics?

    Is he talking about kids who cannot yet read?

    The three girls A, B, and C (in fifth/sixth grade) seem to have been interested in reading and had the ability already.

    What about the other students? Did “a lot of reading” teach kids who couldn’t read well and weren’t interested?

    How did Somerby address the achievement gaps?

    Does Somerby have any experience teaching very young kids to read?

    “we would spend time, every day, just letting everybody do that, in whatever manner they chose.”

    Did his students actually learn anything this way, particularly the weaker ones?

    Did he ever study any techniques for teaching reading and writing? He “came to believe” his method was the best. Did he consult any education experts?

  14. “You can't measure a child's "reading level" the same way you can measure her height.”

    Isn’t the naep attempting to meaure just that?

    And aren’t those exams that get people into advanced schools like NYC’s specialized high schools attempting to measure this? If Somerby really believes a test can’t truly measure a child’s reading level, then doesn’t that open the door to the possibility that the test is perhaps a flawed or incomplete measure of student ability?

  15. Looking at 2019 NAEP reading scores for those with learning disabilites in NYC, their mean score is 183. That puts them well below the Basic level cutoff of 210. The 2019 scores are also significantly below the score for 2002 of 194. The scores have been significantly lower than 2002 for the past 5 administrations of the test (since 2011).

    Somerby has questioned whether this constitutes a literacy crisis (he actually said literary, but that is perhaps a typo). Given that those who are illiterate are overrepresented in prison populations, I think this is an important problem to be addressing. It is difficult for me to see how Somerby can be seriously arguing that the new Mayor shouldn't be trying to address reading problems in the public schools.

    Overall, the bottom 10% are the only group showing decreases in scores in the long term trend analysis. That suggests decreased attention to helping those with serious learning problems. I consider it admirable that NYC's new Mayor wants to address that problem.

  16. This debate about how to teach reading is especially intense because Lucy Calkins is on faculty at Columbia and her program has had a lot of influence in the NYC schools. She is now changing her program to include more phonics, but it is still based on the myth of the natural reader (that reading is as natural as speaking). Not all children learn to read easily, and the efficacy of phonics for such children is part of the science of reading.

    The NY Times discusses this dispute today:


    Somerby has ignored it. Somerby's own method, as described above, is similar to the Calkins approach, where you find interesting books and encourage kids to read a lot under the assumption that reading emerges naturally with practice. While some kids do learn to read that way, others do not. There needs to be a different approach to help those who are not natural readers, as the NY Times article explains.

  17. Everyone who doesn't think like I do is a racist.

    1. racist -- definition:

      "a person who is prejudiced against or antagonistic toward people on the basis of their membership in a particular racial or ethnic group, typically one that is a minority or marginalized"

    2. 9:49,
      Like you, everyone who doesn't think, is an idiot.