TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 14, 2023
Upper-end journos perform: This morning, as part of his weekly "Conversation" with Gail Collins, Bret Stephens of the New York Times has said the same darn thing(s)!
He says the same things Nicholas Kristof said in Sunday's New York Times. For background concerning Kristof's column, see yesterday's report.
This morning, Bret Stephens says the same things Kristof said! Singing sweetly from the hymnal of a long-abandoned religion, Stephens starts with this:
Bret (2/14/23): But speaking of long-term threats to the country, Gail, I was shocked but not surprised to read that two-thirds of American fourth graders are not proficient in reading. What a disaster. Thoughts on fixing?
Gail: Nothing more important to worry about than reading skills.
(We're presenting the pair as "Bret" and "Gail" because that's what the Times itself does.)
At the start of this exchange, Stephens says he was "shocked but not surprised" by something he'd recently read. He links to a report by the NAEP as the source of what he'd learned.
At this point, we'll take a guess. It's much more likely, that Stephens read about our fourth graders' reading performance in Kristof's column, which also linked to a recent report from the NAEP.
According to Stephens, he was "shocked but not surprised" to learn that "two-thirds of American fourth graders are not proficient in reading." For starters, let us say this about that:
What qualifies as "proficiency" on some particular test? That is always a subjective assessment—and it has long been claimed, by some education specialists, that the NAEP sets its standard for "proficiency" artificially high.
That's the sort of question you will never see discussed in a newspaper like the New York Times. Instead, you'll see the extremely occasional mention of the overall performance of American kids, generally in a way intended to show how terrible everything is.
Should Stephens have been surprised by what he recently read about the nation's fourth graders? Not hardly, no! The proficiency rate from last year's test was only down by two or three percentage points from the rate recorded in 2019—the last year before Covid hit, and the last time the NAEP had been administered.
In short, roughly two-thirds of fourth graders have always failed to demonstrate "proficiency" in reading, based on the NAEP's (subjective) standard. There was nothing new or surprising about last year's performance, though we'd be very surprised if Kristof, Stephens or Collins had actually known such a fact.
In this morning's "Conversation," Stephens and Collins present the kind of drive-by discussion which is accorded, though only extremely rarely, to such "important" public school topics. As they do, they sing from the hymnal designed to show readers how deeply the New York Times cares.
The pair recite the standard piffle, including Collins' instant claim that there's "nothing more important to worry about than reading skills."
Then, as if to prove the obvious fact that they don't worry about such matters, the pair go on to reach the same conclusion Kristof did, with a few other bromides tossed in:
Gail: Nothing more important to worry about than reading skills. But you don’t want to encourage an obsession over tests. There’s way too much of that already—even preschools are drilling their kids in preparation for kindergarten entrance exams.
Bret: On this point, Gail, we agree. The endless testing is turning kids into nervous wrecks. And clearly it’s not helping them get any better at reading and math.
Gail: Let’s focus on early childhood education—if it’s the right quality, kids will move on to grade school with skills in problem solving and critical thinking that make the next level so much easier.
That, of course, would require a lot more money. Jill Biden has made it one of her top crusades, and cheers to the first lady for that.
Bret: I’m pretty sure the United States spends much more per student than most other countries, only to achieve lackluster results. Different suggestion: Let’s adopt phonics more widely for early reading, give up new math for old math and urge parents to read to and with their children for at least an hour each night.
Gail: Preschool education is one of our biggest fights, so I guess this conversation needs to be continued.
This conversation needs to be continued, Collins says. And it will be continued—at some point in the next decade! For today, the standard bromides were hauled out:
We shouldn't engage in over-testing, the well-versed pundit pair said. Also, we need to focus on preschool education. It's one of our biggest fights!
Most instructively, Stephens ended up offering the same conclusion Kristof offered two days earlier. "Let’s adopt phonics more widely for early reading," the gentleman thoughtfully said.
Two days earlier, Kristof had made a pair of ludicrous claims. He said we know how to "fix" education, and he said that phonics instruction will do it.
Two days later, there was Stephens, linking to the same NAEP report and suggesting the same solution.
When people like these behave in these ways, they tell us who they are. They also tell us how little attention they actually pay to the obvious problems which exist in our nation's public schools, and to the needs and the interests of the millions of good, decent kids who attend them.
In the Conversation we've posted, Stephens makes a snarky remark about the way educational testing hasn't helped our dumbbell kids get better at reading or math.
Collins proceeds to offer her own simple-minded assessment, sillily saying that early childhood education will send the nations kids to grade school "with skills in problem solving and critical thinking that make the next level so much easier," full other-worldly stop.
Kristof said that phonics instruction would "fix" our reading shortfall. According to various experts, it's easy to make such ridiculous statements when you don't actually care.
Briefly, let's be clear. Nicholas Kristof has long brought a superb set of values to his work at the Times. That said, and in our view, he's always had a major blind spot when it comes to the public schools.
The notion that phonics can "fix" our nation's education problem is a notion which comes to us from the land of I Don't Really Care. No serious person could think such a thing, and no serious person does.
Before moving on from the latest performance by this trio of Timespersons, let's get clear on the kinds of problem Nicholas Kristof crazily said that phonics instruction can "fix."
Yesterday, we showed you the way reading scores on the NAEP improved between 1998 and 2009—during a period when Kristof says that many liberals had turned against phonics instruction for partisan political reasons.
(President Bush had endorsed phonics. According to Kristof, that turned our blue tribe against it.)
Did any such thing actually happen? We have no idea. But as we showed you yesterday afternoon, these were the average scores in Grade 4 reading during those long-ago years:
Average scores, Grade 4 reading, NAEP
American public schools: 1998 / 2009
White kids: 223.07 / 229.21
Black kids: 191.61 / 203.96
Hispanic kids: 191.70 / 204.10
According to a widely used (though very rough) rule of thumb, ten points on the NAEP scale is roughly equivalent to one academic year. If we apply that very rough rule of thumb, all three of those demographic groups achieved large performance gains during the period in question.
It's also true that very large "achievement gaps" still obtained between those groups of kids as of 2009. Kristof never mentioned such gaps as he pleasingly told the world that more reliance on phonics instruction can fix our reading shortfall.
Does any sane person really think any such thing? Bringing ourselves up to date, here are the average scores from last year's NAEP, following two years of dislocation due to Covid:
Average scores, Grade 4 reading, NAEP
American public schools, 2022
White kids: xxx
Black kids: xxx
Hispanic kids: xxxx
Asian American kids: xxxx
Doggone it! The NAEP's web site is currently down, a not infrequent event.
That said, large "achievement gaps" still exist between those different groups. No sane person could possibly think that we have a magic solution for this state of affairs—an increase in phonics instruction.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep, but our upper-end news orgs would jump off the Golden Gate Bridge before they'd willingly conduct discussions of this educational shortfall. Presumably, the current state of affairs is too embarrassing for these well-intentioned, upper-class figures to report, debate or discuss.
Instead, they avoid the subject altogether, focusing on their favorite topic—Who will get into Stuyvesant High and possibly even go to Yale?—and offering magical solutions to an unmentioned problem on the extremely rare occasions when public school education gets discussed at all.
Kristof's claim about "fixing" the school comes to us straight from The Crazy. Meanwhile, members of our vastly self-impressed blue tribe need to come to terms with a basic observable fact:
Our tribe quit on the interests, the needs and the happiness of black kids a long time ago. Very few things are ever more clear than that.
Here within our self-impressed tribe, we aren't the supremely moral super-persons we seem to think we are. That doesn't mean that we're bad people. It just means that we're people people.
We aren't the supremely moral people we constantly say we are. This blind spot regarding our own imperfection is one of the factors which had led us, down through the years, to endless political defeats.
This brings us back to Kristof's claim—the remarkable claim that liberals turned against phonics instruction because George W. Bush endorsed it.
Did that actually happen? We have no idea. But the claim provides an entry point to the current state of our nation's tribal war, in which two warring tribes, red and blue, take turns demonizing the Others.
Did liberals really behave that way when Bush was in the White House? We have no idea—but our tribe routinely behaves unwisely now, with a rather large dollop of possible dishonesty constantly thrown on the pile.
A second column in Sunday's Times—a column by a good and decent person—helps us see the casual way we tend to play this game.
Our anger encourages us to invent the Other. The anger may be understandable, but are its outcomes helpful?
Tomorrow: These Extremely Bad People Today!