ANGER AND OTHER: Bret Stephens repeats what Kristof said!


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!


  1. "That's the sort of question you will never see discussed in a newspaper like the New York Times"

    Propaganda campaigns in general have been closely attuned to elite interests. The Red scare of 1919-20 have served well to abort the union-organizing drive that followed World War I in the sell and other industries. The Truman-McCarthy Red scare helped inaugurate the Cold War and the permanent war economy, and it also served to weaken the progressive coalition of the New Deal years. The chronic focus on the plight of Soviet dissidents, on enemy killings in Cambodia, and on the Bulgarian Connection helped weaken the Vietnam syndrome, justify a huge arms buildup and a more aggressive foreign policy, and divert attention from upward redistribution of income that was the heart of Reagan's domestic economic program. The recent propaganda-disinformation attacks on Nicaragua have been needed to avert eyes from the savagery of the war in El Salvador and to justify the escalating U.S. investment in counterrevolution in Central America.

    1. Except such questions have been and continue to be discussed in the NY Times.

    2. The recent propaganda-disinformation campaign about inflation has led to the Fed raising interest rates to wrestle leverage from labor and give it back to business owners.

    3. Inflation was up .5% in January. The jury is still out on whether inflation still needs to be addressed by the Fed.

    4. Raising interest rates isn't the best way to control inflation when the problem is supply.

    5. Is the problem still supply?

    6. It's always a combination of supply and demand. But when inflation took off in 2021 it was primarily a supply issue. The fed is very limited with its ability to curb inflation using the one lever at its disposal.

    7. Having competitive markets is a much better way to tame inflation. Of course, anti-trust regulation and enforcement doesn't hurt workers, so it would defeat the whole purpose of the corporate media banging the inflation drum.

    8. It's nice to see someone else willing to criticize the media around here.

    9. 2:20: Exactly. Especially at a blog that approvingly quotes media mavens like David Brooks, David French, Andrew Sullivan, and Nicholas Kristof.

    10. Criticizing the media is not a tacit endorsement of Somerby. He has become largely ineffective at it.

  2. Gail and Bret are a joke. Somerby is right that they don't discuss anything long enough to say anything important about it.

    That 65% figure is coming from Bari Weiss at The Free Press (which is her media company). It claims, based on Emily Hanford, that 65% of children cannot read because they are not taught using phonics. Her attack on public education gives comfort to the right. The idea that large numbers of schools are NOT using phonics is wrong, because most reading programs combine phonics with other approaches, which is consistent with research on how children learn to read. Decoding (using phonics) is not the only skill important to reading and phonics-only is not sufficient to produce good readers. Promoting it as a kind of magic approach that will cure everything is wishful thinking.

  3. Reading is the skill that tracks IQ most closely. IQ in children depends on genetic endowment which creates a range of intellectual potential that depends in turn on childhood experiences, especially in the first two years, but continuing throughout childhood. Kids will reach the higher end of their potential with stimulation in the first months and enriched experiences in the first two years. After that, they learn by exploring the world and receiving explanation and attention from parents and caretakers, so that when they reach kindergarten and first grade, they have heard lots of words, acquired a large speaking vocabulary and will have experiential reference points for the words they will be asked to learn to read. A kid who has seen an airplane in real life will have an easier time learning to read the word for airplane, and understanding text in a paragraph that is about an airplane trip. Kids who come from disadvantaged, impoverished home environments, who live in poor neighborhoods where they never have a variety of experiences, are going to be handicapped in school from day one. Teachers work hard to overcome such barriers to learning, but it is hard to make up for 5 years of missed opportunity. Public TV shows for children have tried to remedy this, as does preschool, but they cannot make up for the earliest months when some kids spend a lot of time in a crib or playpen instead of interacting with parents, siblings or caretakers, and where they are rarely spoken to, don't hear a rich vocabulary at home, and are less frequently played with or toted around on errands in the wider community (which is a learning opportunity for toddlers).

    I'm sure Somerby understands this. Teachers do too. Parents may not. This is why California runs a series of ads called First Five, about how to interact with a young child to stimulate development, and why it is important. Conservatives ignore this stuff, I assume, since it is hard to believe they would deliberately handicap children in the name of politics.

    My point is that phonics cannot compensate for the loss of early childhood experiences, in the years before kids even go to school. Until the 1950s, it was common for adults not to graduate from high school or even attend, quitting after 8th grade (only 34.5% graduated in 1950). More recently, few families had books in the home and only upper class families read to their children, as has now become routine in middle class families, but is still nonexistent in lower class families. Of course there are gaps and of course there are kids struggling to read. I do not understand why conservatives oppose things that will actually help, such as universal preschool, school libraries, public library programs for preschool age kids, and literacy programs for adults. How on earth is banning books going to help this situation? Phonics seems to be their magic pill because there is nothing threatening about consonants in isolation from meaning, but children need to learn about their world not just learn to sound out words whose meanings still elude them.

  4. Phonics isn't a magic cure-all. It's the correct technique for learning to read an alphabetically written language.

    1. The goal is to read and understand, not just be able to sound out words. Phonics is related to decoding, but that isn't all there is to reading. Research shows that reading involves several cognitive processes that all occur, only one of which is sounding out the letters.

      "Basic reading can be defined as a set of skills that develop students' understanding and knowledge of print concepts, phonological awareness, phonics and word recognition, word composition (spelling), and fluency; these skills are sequenced and serve as a platform for later competence and proficiency in reading. "

      Fluency, not phonemic awareness or decoding, is considered the most neglected skill related to reading. It is addressed by practice. When kids are struggling, rule out sensory problems (vision and hearing) first.

    2. Some kids do fine at reading by recognizing the shape of the word (the letters in combination), not sounding them out at all. Phonics is right-brained whereas shape recognition is left-brained. Phonics is based on hearing whereas shape recognition is based on vision. Kids can learn to read well using either approach. It is kids who are struggling who may be helped specifically by phonics, or by other programs to address learning disorders.

    3. Sorry, I have that reversed. Sequential sounds are left hemisphere and shape is right hemisphere but both operate together with priority for one or the other.

  5. Why shouldn't parents of college-bound kids care about and try to get their kids into top schools? Is it wrong for the parents of high achieving kids to try to obtain opportunities for them, such as by attending Stuyvesant High? Equal opportunity means chances for all kids. But Somerby mistakes the point that the parents of black kids were upset that their kids didn't have the same chance to go to Stuyvesant as Asian kids whose middle schools prepared them for the entrance exams, whereas even the most talented black kids didn't have that preparation. Somerby instead sided with the more advantaged Asian kids, instead of the proposal to determine entry by lottery, where all kids who apply have some chance.

  6. Well, simplistic and dubious things do tend to get repeated; do not be surprised if this comes spilling out of Bill Maher on friday night.
    But, with a lot of very dubious memes flying around this week, I sense a dead horse waiting to be flogged. To be fair, this is a worthwhile subject Bob has shown a sincere interest in over the years.

  7. Because Bob is an expert in education, he recognizes that the Times pundits don't really know what they're talking about when they discuss education. IMO they don't know very much about a host of issues. These pundits are basically people who write well. They're columns are a pleasure to read, because of the writing. But, whether they're writing about medicine, economics, defense, guns, etc., they have no great expertise.

    The one exception is Paul Krugman, a super-expert in economics. Unfortunately, his columns don't usually deal with economic issues. When they do, they tend to simply parrot the currently prevailing liberal narrative.

    1. Having taught school for a time does not qualify Bob as an expert. Sometimes, he does seem to take these issues seriously.

    2. Somerby, the “expert”, never answered the question as to whether liberals started opposing phonics because Bush supported it. He kept asking if such a thing was possible, but never answering, just leaving the insinuation out there. And Somerby was blogging during the Bush administration, so wouldn’t he have noticed this purported trend?

      But this insinuation fits in with that David French column that Somerby featured the other day, where the narrative was that if conservatives are for something, liberals are automatically against it. Because tribalism.

    3. He wrote a series of uninteresting non sequiturs.

    4. Non sequitur means doesn’t follow.

    5. Krugman is a Nobel prize winning economist. Superexpert is an understatement. When such an economist supports liberal not conservative positions, that should mean those positions are better for our evonomy. It sounds like David wishes to ignore Krugman’s advice because it comes from liberals despite his expertise.

  8. Kids don't need to know how to read. They can just use voice to text.

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