SATURDAY, JUNE 24, 2023
Skips past what's blindingly obvious: What the heck has been going on with Mississippi's public school kids?
Has a "Mississippi miracle"occurred in that state's public schools? Carelessly, the Associated Press was willing to float that pleasing idea in the headline to this pleasing report back on May 17:
‘Mississippi miracle’: Kids’ reading scores have soared in Deep South states
That's the headline which appeared above Sharon Lurye's lengthy AP report. According to the careless report, reading scores have "soared" to the point where some people are tossing the M-word around!
On June 1, Nicholas Kristof followed with a lengthy essay on this topic in the New York Times. To his credit, Kristof never let the silly term "miracle" intrude on his lengthy report.
That said, the true-believing non-expert did throw the R-word in. A "revolution" is underway in Mississippi's schools, the non-expert New York Times columnist quickly suggested or said:
KRISTOF (6/1/23): In the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a series of nationwide tests better known as NAEP, Mississippi has moved from near the bottom to the middle for most of the exams—and near the top when adjusted for demographics. Among just children in poverty, Mississippi fourth graders now are tied for best performers in the nation in NAEP reading tests and rank second in math.
“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 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.
In Kristof's non-expert assessment, the revolution is incomplete. But a "revolution" in Mississippi's public schools is already underway!
According to F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tom and Daisy Buchanan were "careless people," possessed of "vast carelessness." In our view, Lurye and Kristof are also behaving carelessly when they apply terms like miracle and revolution to the changes currently underway in Mississippi's public schools.
We think they're repeating a familiar process of the past (at least) fifty years. In this very familiar process, journalists drop in on a set of high-scoring public schools, then quickly fly away, leaving pleasing but unfounded claims in their immediate wake.
Having said that, let's be fair:
In the passage we've posted above, Kristof refers to Mississippi's improved test scores on the Naep Grade 4 reading and math tests. In the main, it's those improved Grade 4 Naep scores which have led Kristof to declare that a revolution is underway.
Those Naep scores signal a revolution, Kristof seems to say. But to his credit, he also cites three points of concern which darken the picture somewhat.
In doing so, he skips right past the obvious statistical problem with the revolution he announces. In fairness, though, he does cite these three points of potential concern;
KRISTOF: 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.
With such a focus on learning to read, one of the surprises has been that Mississippi fourth graders have also improved significantly in math. One possible explanation is that some math problems require reading; another is that children try harder in all subjects when they enjoy school.
One challenge is that while Mississippi has made enormous gains in early grades, the improvement has been more modest in eighth-grade NAEP scores. Still, the state has made progress in several areas that help upper grades: getting parents more involved and promoting vocational education, in addition to raising high school graduation rates.
Race gaps persist, Kristof correctly says. He fails to note how large those race gaps seem to be, even on the Grade 4 level.
To see how large those (very large) race gaps are, click here for Thursday's report. Presumably, a revolution with gaps like that is no revolution at all.
Kristof notes a second disquieting fact:
The alleged revolution has been underway for almost a decade now. That said, the apparent improvement in Grade 4 performance hasn't been matched on Mississippi's Grade 8 Naep tests—and a revolution which dies before the end of middle school is no revolution at all.
Kristof notes a third somewhat peculiar point. The miracle people are talking about has allegedly been created by the way Mississippi now teaches reading in the early grades—by the way the state now employs phonics instruction and the so-called "science of reading."
That said, why would an improvement in the teaching of reading also lead to impressive score gains on the Grade 4 test in math? Kristof offers a pair of sensible speculations, but a more experienced education journalist wouldn't cast these points of concern aside with such careless abandon.
Of course, Kristof isn't an education journalist at all. In the aftermath of the AP report, he dropped in on some low-income schools in Mississippi. A day or two later, he flew away, failing to show much skepticism about what he thought he had seen or about the things he'd been told.
This makes us think of Tom and Daisy. Fitzgerald portrayed them as shown:
They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.
In fairness, Kristof hasn't smashed anything up with this latest example of New York Times "education tourism." But he left his readers with a vastly inflated sense of assurance that a public school revolution is now underway in that low-income state, one which other states could easily copy.
Such writing performs the function it has performed for the past fifty years. It permits Times readers to breathe a sigh of relief about the good and decent kids within our low-income schools.
It permits Times readers to feel good about low-income schooling—to feel that they no longer have to worry about Mississippi's kids. Our liberal world has been behaving in this careless way for at least the past fifty years.
Alas! In an extremely careless way, Kristof blew right past one seemingly obvious reason for Mississippi's higher Grade 4 Naep scores:
We refer to the obvious statistical advantage gained by a state which adopts Mississippi's third grade retention policy, in which third graders who can't pass a reading test are held back for a second year in third grade.
As we noted before our recent surgery, this retention policy conveys an obvious statistical advantage on Mississippi at the Grade 4 level. In our next report on this topic, we'll run through that blindingly obvious point again—and we'll start to show you the data which lie behind Kristof's fleeting sense of concern about those Grade 4 math tests, and about Mississippi's relative failure to thrive on the Grade 8 level.
We applaud the state of Mississippi for the efforts it is making in its public schools. That said, this latest example of New York Times education journalism is a careless non-competent mess.
As for this nation's education experts, they've been AWOL at times like this for many decades now. They've slept through one such situation after another. They've been silent, incompetent and vastly careless on their Ivy campuses.
Mississippi's kids are decent and good. Our high-end elites, somewhat less.
Coming Monday: Those high Grade 4 math scores