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
Average scores, Grade 4 reading
Lower-income black kids, 2022 Naep
U.S. public schools: 193.42
Average scores, Grade 4 reading
Lower-income white kids, 2022 Naep
U.S. public schools: 211.49
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.
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."