WEDNESDAY, JUNE 21, 2023
Our press corps' careless ways: In fairness, let's be fair.
In the reports we're starting today, we'll explore the basic claims which are currently being made about Mississippi's public schools.
Here's a quick review:
In a lengthy report on May 17, the Associated Press alluded to the "Mississippi miracle." That language strikes us as pleasing but very careless.
On June 1, in the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof didn't repeat that deeply unwise formulation. Still, the hint of revolution was in the air. Early on, in his third paragraph, Kristof offered this overview:
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.
According to Kristof, Mississippi's fourth graders were rocking the world on the Naep. After adjusting for demographics, Mississippi's fourth graders had moved near the top of the nation in both reading and math.
Compared to the other 49 states, Mississippi's lower-income kids were tied for best in the nation in reading, and were now second in math! On this basis, Kristof was claiming that the public schools of this low-income state have a lot to teach everyone else.
For the record, Nicholas Kristof isn't an educational expert. Neither are the careless editors who waved his lengthy essay into print.
Above, we've shown you the third paragraph in Kristof's lengthy essay. The cluelessness is already apparent. Consider two instant mistakes:
In the passage we've posted, Kristof refers to Mississippi's high national ranking on the Naep among "children in poverty."
We're going to assume that he meant something else. Why do we say that? Here's why:
How incompetent are Kristof, and his editors at the Times, in the realm of public school Naep scores? Sadly and inexcusably, the answer starts with this:
In support of his upbeat claims, Kristof links to this unofficial but valuable site maintained by the Urban Institute. Unfortunately, the site has only been updated through the 2019 Naep testing. The site contains no records from last year's testing—from the 2022 Naep.
Did Kristof even know that the Naep was administered again last year? There is no sign that he did. In our view, that is very much what elite indifference looks like.
The site to which Kristof links isn't current. Then too, also this:
At the site to which Kristof links, there is no way to adjust Naep data for "children in poverty." Instead, the site uses a more conventional measure of economic disadvantage—it allows you to see the average scores within each state which were achieved by children eligible for free and reduced priced meals within the federal lunch program.
Within the world of public school test statistics, that's a conventional measure of economic status—but it isn't a measure of poverty. Children are eligible for the federal lunch program even if their family incomes are roughly twice as high as the federal poverty level.
In short, Kristof's essay starts like this:
Right at the start of his essay, Kristof links to a site which doesn't include any data from the 2022 Naep. He also seems to think that eligibility for the federal lunch program is a measure of poverty.
"Education tourists" within the upper-end press make that mistake all the time, if only to make the results they are pimping sound that much more exciting. In our view, this persistent error is a familiar marker of drive-by public school journalism.
By the third paragraph in his long essay, Kristof and his careless editors have performed this pair of mistakes. In our view, these are the marks of an essentially uncaring elite.
Tom and Daisy Buchanan were careless people, or so Fitzgerald said. Right there in The Great Gatsby, they were described in this manner:
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.
The Buchanans would let other people clean up the messes they made! So it frequently tends to go when upper-end journalists like Nicholas Kristof take a few hours out of their lives to look in on the good and thoroughly decent kids in our low-income public schools.
They offer some bromides, then wander away. They retreat back into a world which doesn't care about low-income kids, or at least doesn't care enough to manage to get such things straight.
At one point, Kristof's essay took a very familiar form—a form our careless upper-end journalists have loved for the past fifty years.
Our journalists love to show up on the ground and write about "Schools That Work." In this passage about Mississippi's alleged success, Kristof borrows a very familiar part of this Storyline-driven literary form:
KRISTOF: Other states, particularly Alabama, have adopted elements of Mississippi’s approach and have improved outcomes—but not nearly as much as Mississippi has. Perhaps that’s because those states’ leaders didn’t work as hard or because Alabama until recently didn’t have a must-pass third-grade reading test, but it’s also true that Mississippi has been guided by a visionary leadership team that may be difficult to recreate elsewhere.
Maybe the other states just haven't worked as hard! In our own direct experience, careless observers like Nicholas Kristof have offered such thoughts for the past fifty years, often while praising high test scores which resulted from outright fraud.
We know of exactly zero reason to think that Mississippi's current Naep scores result from some sort of fraud. We do suspect that the state's improved scores in Grade 4 reading and math have resulted, in whole or in part, from the policy in which something like ten percent of the state's public school kids spend two (2) years in third grade, giving them an extra year of instruction before they take those Grade 4 tests.
As you may recall, we were exploring this topic a few weeks back, but then we had to take a break for a surgical procedure.
We apologize for the backtracking and the confusion. That said, we want to walk you through the evidence regarding this general matter, if only because the lives and interests of Mississippi's low-income and minority kids should, at long last, be examined in full.
Kristof dropped in on the state, then declared that all was well. Based on those Grade 4 scores, you can see why he might have thought that.
That said, Nicholas Kristof isn't an educational expert. Based on their lazy lack of performance, neither are many of the professorial types who carelessly drag that appellation around.
In fairness, let's be fair! Mississippi's Grade 4 scores can look extremely good.
Tomorrow, we'll walk you through those Grade 4 scores in a bit of detail. Those scores reflect the lives and the interests of the good and decent low-income kids who, just be completely honest, no one has ever cared about and no one ever will.
We're going to show you lots of scores. We're going to "adjust for demographics" until we're all blue in the face.
Along the way, a ballyhooed miracle may possibly start to fade.
It's fun to talk about Schools That Work. It feels inspiring to be talking about The Little Low-Income State That Could.
Everyone gets to feel good for a while when this familiar Storyline makes its latest appearance. Also, everyone gets to pretend that they really, really care about low-income kids.
It seems to us that Mississippi's Naep scores are nowhere near as impressive as has been widely said. Sadly, we're forced to inform you of such things because our "experts" and "journalists" won't.
Tomorrow: Let's take a look at the Naep scores!