MISSISSIPPI'S KIDS: After Grade 4, the miracle died!

TUESDAY, JUNE 27, 2023

And with it, the revolution: We'll borrow from sacred Chekhov:

Over the course of the past five weeks, "the new arrival on the front" has been those Mississippi Naep scores.

Specifically, we refer to Mississippi's recent scores on the Naep's Grade 4 reading test.  

As we noted yesterday, the numbers from that Grade 4 test can look amazingly good. As we showed you yesterday, here are three examples:

Average scores, Grade 4 reading
Lower-income kids, 2022 Naep
U.S. public schools: 202.67
Mississippi: 211.74

Average scores, Grade 4 reading
Lower-income black kids, 2022 Naep
U.S. public schools: 193.42
Mississippi: 202.76

Average scores, Grade 4 reading
Lower-income white kids, 2022 Naep
U.S. public schools: 211.49
Mississippi: 224.45

Mississippi's lower-income kids were outperforming their peers from across the nation. The gap was roughly a full academic year—and this was just in fourth grade!

This new arrival on the front became the topic of general conversation. The excitement started on May 17 with a lengthy report by the Associated Press. A thrilling word was right there in its headline:

‘Mississippi miracle’: Kids’ reading scores have soared in Deep South states

In fairness, the AP's Sharon Lurye didn't describe those scores as a "miracle." In her lengthy report, she merely said that other souls were tossing that term around.

On June 1, Nicholas Kristof followed suit in the New York Times. To his credit, Kristof didn't use the word "miracle" at all. But he did say these things, headline included:

Mississippi Is Offering Lessons for America on Education

The refrain across much of the Deep South for decades was “Thank God for Mississippi!” That’s because however abysmally Arkansas or Alabama might perform in national comparisons, they could still bet that they wouldn’t be the worst in America. That spot was often reserved for Mississippi.

So it’s extraordinary to travel across [Mississippi] today and find something dazzling: It is lifting education outcomes and soaring in the national rankings...


The revolution here in Mississippi is incomplete, and race gaps persist, but it’s thrilling to see the excitement and pride bubbling in the halls of de facto segregated Black schools in some of the nation’s poorest communities.


Mississippi has achieved its gains despite ranking 46th in spending per pupil in grades K-12. Its low price tag is one reason Mississippi’s strategy might be replicable in other states. Another is that while education reforms around the country have often been ferociously contentious and involved battles with teachers’ unions, this education revolution in Mississippi unfolded with support from teachers and their union. 

Kristof was dazzled and thrilled by what he saw and heard during his drop-in visit to the low-income state. What he saw was an "education revolution," especially among the good, decent kids in Mississippi's "de facto segregated Black schools." 

Kristof was thrilled by what he saw. Along the way, he quoted an "education expert"—an education expert from Harvard, no less—and that education expert was quoted saying this:

KRISTOF: “Mississippi is a huge success story and very exciting,” David Deming, a Harvard economist and education expert, told me. What’s so significant, he said, is that while Mississippi hasn’t overcome poverty or racism, it still manages to get kids to read and excel.

“You cannot use poverty as an excuse. That’s the most important lesson,” Deming added. “It’s so important, I want to shout it from the mountaintop.” What Mississippi teaches, he said, is that “we shouldn’t be giving up on children.”

The expert had been to the mountaintop. He wanted to shout to the world.

Specifically, Mississippi's public school "get kids to excel," the education expert told Kristof. This wasn't an everyday success story—it was "a huge success story," the expert said. He was even willing to offer the thought that we shouldn't give up on kids!

These are the frameworks we've been offered, in recent weeks, about Mississippi's fully laudable, extensive effort to improve its public schools. 

That said, what has happened in Mississippi? The Associated Press floated the thought of a miracle. The miraculous story was so exciting, it even scored a fleeting mention on Morning Joe, with unsourced talk on an "Alabama miracle" thrown onto the pile.

The AP spoke of a miracle. According to Kristof, a thrilling "education revolution" is taking place in this low-income state. The Harvard education expert seemed to feel the same way. 

Full disclosures:

Once again, we offer nothing but praise for the many people in Mississippi who have worked, very hard, to improve that state's public schools. 

We taught in Baltimore's low-income schools from 1969 through 1982. Such schools were often very poorly run at that time. All across the country, and in Mississippi, a lot of people have worked very hard since that time to give kids a better break.

We also make this disclosure:

As a general matter, the New York Times' Nicholas Kristos has superlative values, Over the years, he has also been much too willing to believe the various things he's told about the nation's public schools.

He's willingly put his trust in princes, sometimes to bad effect. In his lengthy June 1 essay, we'd say that it's happened again.

This brings us to the education expert, who is surely a good person too. He got his doctorate in Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School in 2010, though we'll have to admit that we're very surprised, and more often appalled and disgusted, to think that he said the various things he apparently said to Kristof.

Has a miracle happened in Mississippi? Is a thrilling "education revolution" underway in that low-income state?

Can "a huge success story" be found in those Grade 4 Naep scores, impressive as those numbers might seem to the naked or untrained eye?

Tomorrow, we'll show you why we find such statements astonishing and even offensive. That said, in the end, the current statements are really just more of the same.

For what it's worth, we don't believe that Mississippi's good and decent fourth grade kids are heavily outperforming their counterparts from around this struggling nation.

Everything is always possible. But we don't believe that that's true.

Everything is always possible; that would include even this. But we suspect that Mississippi's third grade retention policy has played a role in the creation of those Grade 4 reading scores, and we think it was journalistic and academic malpractice when the New York Times columnist and the Harvard economist didn't address the obvious possibility that those high Grade 4 scores are "a bit of a statistical mirage," inflated by that statewide practice.

A miracle is taking place in [INSERT LOCATION OF SCHOOL OR SCHOOLS]! We've seen this Storyline get hyped, on both the local and national levels, ever since the early 1970s, when it surfaced right here in the Baltimore Sun. 

On an annual basis, a completely well-intentioned columnist was singing the praises of a handful of "inner-city" schools which had extremely high test scores on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills. If only teachers and principals in other schools would work that hard, the columnist explicitly said.

Alas! We had two good friends who were experienced teachers in one of those high-scoring schools. One weekend evening, over dinner, they told us about the extensive cheating at their school, extensive cheating which had produced those jaw-dropping Iowa Test scores.

We refer here to outright cheating, not to some limited form of "teaching to the test." For us, our interest in this recurrent story has continued along from there, through quite a few iterations over the past fifty years.

Langston Hughes' brilliant and beautiful, wizened "Negro" had known ancient rivers. We've seen an endless progression of these test score rivers too.

On balance, we think it's disgraceful to refer to Mississippi's Grade 4 scores as a sign of a thrilling "education revolution." Tomorrow or Thursday, we'll show you why we say that.

For today, we'll suggest that you simply gaze on what has once again been said. In this case, it's been said by two of our most important news orgs and also by one expert. 

Journalists have made these pleasing claims many times before, most frequently as the nation's education experts maintained their disgraceful silence. 

These pleasing claims have been made many times. Have these claims ever been true?

Tomorrow or Thursday: The miracle died in middle school. Plus, the size of that vast "race gap."


  1. Bob's not a real Right-winger. If he was, he'd be challenging these Mississippi school kids to fight him in a MMA ring.

  2. If you don't want to know how corrupt the Democratic Party is, ask John Durham to explain how corrupt they are under oath.

  3. "Once again, we offer nothing but praise for the many people in Mississippi who have worked, very hard, to improve that state's public schools."

    And yet Somerby has now spent over a month trying to undermine the importance of what MS has done! If this is what "nothing but praise" looks like, I pity the kids who were ever in his classroom. He has suggested there was cheating, suggested that the improved scores are the result of a statistical anomaly (if not a manipulation), and he has denied that the scores represent real improvement. He has claimed they are the result of retention policies, despite a scholarly paper that has refuted that idea explicitly. And he keeps on chipping away at the MS achievement, ignoring the comments on his own blog that have addressed his various criticisms.

    It is an outright lie that Somerby has offered nothing but praise to MS.

    1. Somerby has pointed out that the hype is unwarranted. Big difference.

    2. No, he has not shown that at all. He has speculated but provided no data to support his complaints.

  4. "We taught in Baltimore's low-income schools from 1969 through 1982."

    Today Somerby has once again changed the number of years he worked in the Baltimore Schools. Just a few days ago, he said it was 9 years. Today he is claiming 13 years.

    You would think that Somerby, having been the guy who did the work, would know how many years he taught there.

    1. Why did he stop? Doesn’t he care about the kids?

    2. He formerly said he taught for 7 years.

      Indeed, truth is just a mirage for some.

    3. I don't think he ever said 7 years. You trolls are not accomplishing anything with this annoying interference.

  5. Recently, Somerby claimed that if the 4th grade math scores increased too, that meant that the reading scores could not have increased due to improvements in reading instruction, as claimed. This was addressed in comments by showing the connection between reading and math identified in the education literature. Then Somerby began hinting that if the eighth grade scores didn't show the same improvement as the 4th grade scores, the 4th grade results must be problematic.

    Somerby promised to talk about those 8th grade scores today, but has switched instead to a complaint about somebody named Deming. Somerby makes no actual complaint -- he says instead that he is shocked, I tell, shocked at what Deming said to Kristof. Somerby doesn't tell us what he finds shocking -- just Deming apparently said something, some unmentioned thing, that was very very bad. Because this is how Somerby works these days. He casts aspersion but offers no evidence, and today doesn't even tell us what Deming said that was bad.

    Then he wastes paragraph after paragraph telling us how bad we all are, how we are sliding into the sea:

    "On balance, we think it's disgraceful to refer to Mississippi's Grade 4 scores as a sign of a thrilling "education revolution." Tomorrow or Thursday, we'll show you why we say that."

    No evidence after over a month of railing against MS progress, and the nerve of anyone who considers their gains important! And there will be no evidence on Thursday either.

    1. There wasn’t as much progress as people have hyped. That’s Bob’s point, and he’s right.

    2. Except there was. Somerby is wrong.

    3. Generally, Somerby is not very credible, but Deming’s “poverty is no excuse” is reprehensible nonsense.

    4. The poverty in question belongs to Southern States such as MS, not to individual children in schools that went for too long without proper funding.

      Deming is right when he suggests that black children can do as well as average when given the same opportunity to learn as the average child. That's what the NAEP data says. Perhaps that is why Somerby is fighting it so hard -- he doesn't want to admit that it is racism that is holding black children back. Poverty is no excuse for underfunding public schools. Who can disagree with that?

    5. Nobody, outside of white supremacists, seriously suggests that Blacks can’t do as well others, and Deming is not providing a counterpoint to that.

      Race is a function of racism. People referred to as “Black” are the same as everybody else, in any way that matters.

      Deming says you can’t use poverty as an excuse for not learning how to read, but indeed you can. Unlike what right wingers say, broadly speaking, lacking success in endeavors is not a personal failing, not reducible to bad personal decisions. Poverty indeed is a prime reason for a lack of success.

      Black poverty is a function of racism.

      I doubt Deming is a white supremacist, but he engages in racist rhetoric.

      It should go without saying that poverty is a condition that results in underfunding public schools, definitionally.

      It is better, and more easily attainable, to focus on diminishing poverty, than worrying about whether it’s an “excuse” or not.

    6. Deming has been around a long time, so he may not meet your language-related purity test. His heart is in the right place. I think you and he would agree, since he is saying that the progress in MS shows that addressing problems of all kids, even those who are struggling in major ways to read, works better than ignoring them or making them repeat a grade while doing nothing additional to help them.

  6. "Alas! We had two good friends who were experienced teachers in one of those high-scoring schools. One weekend evening, over dinner, they told us about the extensive cheating at their school, extensive cheating which had produced those jaw-dropping Iowa Test scores."

    This anecdote is highly misleading. A few weeks ago, Somerby offered it as proof of cheating on high stakes tests. Those are the tests used to determined school funding and teacher salaries, not the NAEP test. Somerby has never claimed there was cheating on the NAEP test. On the contrary, he has pointed out that there is NOT cheating on that test because there is nothing at stake. Teachers don't teach to that test, don't cheat on it, because the results do not affect anything, are not reported for individual students, and only measure how the nation's schools are doing across place and time.

    Somerby cannot have this both ways. A couple of teachers describing cheating in Iowa on a high stakes test, doesn't mean that there was widespread cheating in MS on the NAEP test, sufficient to raise students scores by an entire grade level.

    As I took pains to explain here in comments, cheating arose during NCLB because test scores were linked to financial incentives and disincentives, back in the 1980s and 1990s. Somerby doesn't read the comments so he has not ever addressed why teachers, administrators or students cheat. But he does know the difference between these various kinds of tests and he has said no one cheats on the NAEP test -- except he seems to change his mind about that when it suits him to use an out-of-context anecdote, as he has done today.

  7. "Langston Hughes' brilliant and beautiful, wizened "Negro" had known ancient rivers. We've seen an endless progression of these test score rivers too."

    Somerby's comparison of test score rivers to Hughes river as a metaphor for black history implies that there has been black cheating throughout the history of Africans across time. Not only is this majorly offensive, but using Hughes poem to assault the accomplishments of black children in MS is particularly ugly racism, and it shocks me perhaps more than education expert Deming's support for Head Start has shocked Somerby.

    1. It does nothing of the sort, you sanctimonious blowhard.

    2. Langston Hughes is suggesting that black children will survive this too -- this backlash arising among white people when black children show strong progress in reading after being deliberately held back for so long.

  8. "For today, we'll suggest that you simply gaze on what has once again been said. In this case, it's been said by two of our most important news orgs and also by one expert. "

    Somerby is minimizing here. It was also said by Diane Ravitch and Morning Joe. More importantly than that, it was reported by the unimpeachable NAEP testers:

    "The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is a congressionally mandated program that is overseen and administered by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), within the U.S. Department of Education and the Institute of Education Sciences."

    Do you suppose that they are in the business of reporting false statistics?

  9. Somerby's only valid point is about whether or not the improvement in MS constitutes a miracle or just an impressive gain in scores. Everything beyond that is garbage, offensive bigoted ranting against documented, proven progress in MS.

    Somerby doesn't explain why it irks him so much to see such progress in MS. He claims he is the only one who cares about poor black kids, but he is determined to show that those kids have not made progress in a state that has worked very had to improve reading scores. Yes, he includes his pro forma statement denying everything else he has said in his essays, but he has raised a whole series of arguments about how the NAEP scores could be invalid, and thus everyone noticing them is careless and lazy for thinking those kids are now reading better than before.

    What is Somerby's stake in proving that schools do not work? This ongoing vendetta makes no sense to me.

    We are all tired of hearing about MS schools. The amount of time devoted to this subject is disproportionate and that too leads me to suspect psychological motives. This is as cray cray as anything Trump obsesses over. Unfortunately, Somerby is attacking the accomplishments of good, decent black children in MS. They and their teachers, administrators and community supporters in MS deserve defending from Somerby's crap. Somerby may be a pathetic kook, but black kids don't deserve this kind of reaction when they work hard and succeed in life.

    1. It’s been a long, sad slog to the bottom for Bob. Someday a political historian may want to examine the Clinton Gore era in terms of the low level of integrity the political press demonstrated and what the ramifications were for the Country. They may want to take a look at things fhe Right did, how they were rewarded for them, and how it laid the groundwork for a movement we may not have yet survived, a movement of Americans trying to destroy their own Country.
      Bob’s work on that era may be around, and they may find it useful. Otherwise, it’s a washout.

    2. The MS score-hype story provides a very fine example of how the media now turns everything into a joke.

    3. Right wingers like Somerby bristle at progress because they are more comfortable having everyone just accept their lot in life; it does not seem fair that some upstarts may eventually unsettle the power dynamics that have given folks like Somerby an easier ride.

  10. "The miracle died in middle school. Plus, the size of that vast "race gap."

    This is deceptive. The miracle didn't die because the kids in middle school were not taught using the improved reading instruction methods when they were in 1st through 3rd grades. The reading program had not been fully implemented when the 8th graders were learning reading.

    This hinges on the difference between cohort testing and longitudinal testing. The same kids are not being tested at two different points in time. Different groups of kids are being tested at different ages. Those different groups had different experiences learning to read because the kids who are now in 8th grade didn't have the benefit of all of the changes implemented in MS for the recent 4th graders.

    In order to see whether the "miracle" dies, Somerby will have to wait until the 4th graders are tested again in 8th grade, three years from now. Then we can see whether their stronger reading skills help them learn the more advanced material they encounter in subsequent grades.

    Somerby will also need to discuss whether the teachers who staff the upper grades in MS schools are as untrained and deficient in their skills as those teaching reading were, before they implemented their improvement plan. If inadequate teacher training existed in high grade levels too, that may impact NAEP scores for older children, decreasing the gains shown in 4th grade. Will Somerby consider that, or will he just attribute all of the loss to his preferred narrative, that the kids haven't really learned to read better at all and this is a statistical anomaly due to retention (even though the study posted by mh refutes that explanation)?

    I predict that Somerby will simply post the NAEP numbers and then claim his preferred explanation (the kids didn't actually learn to read better), without any further analysis. In the end, Somerby doesn't care why or how kids learn to read, just that Kristof and Morning Joe be shown up when they try to talk about education. That way Somerby keeps his ego-stroking reputation as the smartest guy in the room, at the expense of those hard-working teachers and students in MS.

    1. Somerby’s concern is how the media falsely hypes these stories, and how unreliable these people are. It’s an excellent point. He’s not attacking the kids or the teachers.

      Get it, people?

    2. The media didn’t falsely hype anything.

  11. This is the kind of thing that happens when there are too many people with guns walking around in everyday life:

    "A man in New Mexico has been arrested after he allegedly shot and killed another man during a dispute over a seat inside a movie theater, KRQE reported.

    Police say Enrique Padilla, 19, shot Michael Tenorio, 52, after Padilla and his girlfriend confronted Tenorio and his wife for being in seats that they reserved.

    Staff tried to calm the situation, but the argument escalated when Padilla threw a popcorn bucket at the couple.

    Tenorio pushed Padilla back toward a wall, prompting the 19-year-old to pull a gun and open fire before fleeing the scene on foot. His girlfriend also got in a physical fight with Tenorio’s wife before she also fled. Tenorio died at the scene."

    People get into minor conflicts all the time. When they have guns, things escalate and you have tragedies like this one. No one needs to take a gun to a movie theater.

  12. A guy in Florida, thinking his pool cleaner was an intruder, shot at him. That’s OK under the “stand your ground” law.


  13. Why read this bull crap? Digby has a penetrating exposé on Nazi Trump supporters.

    It's just flooded with empirical data.

  14. Bob's reference to the less than competent education "expert" is right on point. Based on other things I've read, from Thomas Sowell and others, academically trained education "experts" are often not terribly competent. Education research is often not terribly competent. That's a big problem.

    1. Unless you can point to flaws in such research, this is just more name-calling.

    2. I can point to a flaw in the results. Genetic research deciphered DNA and gene splicing. Physics research produced nuclear energy. My actuarial research produced huge profits for my company. Education research hasn't produced something comparable.

      I am not sure of the flaw in the research, but can suggest a couple of possibilities:

      1. Education researchers are not as smart as physicists, geneticists and actuaries.

      2. It's hard to test education theories. Researchers don't generally have sufficient control over a large enough group of students and teachers.

    3. #2 The problem is ethics. You cannot assign students to conditions that may harm them or worsen their prospects. A control group denies them a benefit.

      Today everyone is educated, not just upper class boys. Children learn far more and at younger ages than even two generations ago. The education provided free via public schools has laid the foundation for yhe advanced studies in college that have produced ALL of the other advances you list. That is a considerable accomplishment. Our university system used to be the envy of the world and still trains a substantial portion of students in advanced technical fields.

      I’m sure you included actuaries among the “smart” with tongue in cheek, but the washouts from my doctoral program became actuaries. The rest of us became professors.

    4. @8:36 Congratulations on finishing your doctorate and becoming a professor. I am not sorry that a failed to get my math doctorate. Actuarial work turned out to suit me better than academia.

      I agree that actuaries are not as smart as math professors. But, actuaries are validated smart. I needed to pass 9 challenging exams. On average only around 30% to 40% of exam takers passed each test. Many or most exam-takers gave up without passing all 9 exams.

      Getting back to the value of educational research: Physicists 100 years ago were awfully smart. They developed relativity theory, the uncertainty principle, quantum mechanics. Here's the question for you: Can you list educational gains that were developed by 100 years of educational research that makes today's students smarter than Einstein, Heisenberg, Dirac, etc.?

    5. From what I’ve heard Einstein wouldn’t have done well on the NAEP. Einstein went to college. He gained the intellectual tools to realize his ideas. Schools today teach kids programming and robotics. Education research is applied, not theoretical. Physics is theoretical, engineering is applied. No one would denigrate engineering for being an applied field. Education research studies how to train teachers to teach science concepts in hands on ways to young children. There has bern a huge change in best practices for teaching math over the last 20 years, evident in improved NAEP scores. That translates to a higher percentage of students attending and graduating college to take the tech jobs our economy needs.

      Somerby talks about the racial gap but there is also a tech/education gap that confines less educated young people to worse jobs and lower lifetime earnings. It also shuts them out of cutting edge fields unless they go back for more education (training is education too).

      That’s why it is wrong for Somerby to attack public education. For example, way more college grads worked from home during covid whereas most high school grads did not.

      Our society is not looking for people smarter than Einstein. It is looking for people who can understand and build upon existing knowledge to address problems in advanced fields, preferably able to cooperate on teams and get along with others. Think NASA not the Unabomber. Science is a group activity not something done by famous individuals (identified in retrospect).