MISSISSIPPI'S KIDS: Kristof made two instant mistakes!


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!


  1. Somerby calls Kristof careless but Somerby himself is lazy. He offers that same old canard that he has used for literally decades -- that eligibility for school lunches is not a measure of poverty. Some of us have been addressing that here for the same years Somerby has been rehashing it, without any change because Somerby is too lazy to read his comments.

    There is no practical way to obtain poverty information using any other standard that school lunch eligibility because the schools do not collect such data. How then is the NAEP supposed to classify children when it wants to disaggregate based on income? Schools do have a consistent standard with school lunch eligibility that can serve as a proxy for other measures.

    If Somerby were not in the business of specious criticism, he might propose some other measure of poverty that could be collected by NAEP and reported along with scores on its test. None exists, but Somerby doesn't even try to suggest an alternative to what NAEP currently does. He just calls people names. It is not Kristof who is careless about how poverty is measured -- it is Somerby who is deceptive, pretending there is some other way poverty could have been assessed, that would be consistent across all school districts nationwide. But parents do not file a tax return along with their children's NAEP score sheets. They aren't interviewed. Schools don't keep income info on their students (beyond qualification for school lunches). How else should the low income kids be identified? Somerby doesn't know and he doesn't care, because his sole purpose is to call Kristof careless and ignorant. I'd call Somerby ignorant too, with this criticism, but he is mainly deceptive, dishonest.

    As long as the lower income kids are being identified in a consistent manner nationwide, so that comparisons can be made across districts, the actual cutoff is less important. It might be nice to use some lower cutoff, to examine scores for the truly indigent, but the cutoff used includes those children and not those of higher SES kids, so the purpose is accomplished when their scores are separated from those of wealthier students. The effect of poverty will be plenty evident in that group, as presently defined.

    Somerby should be able to see this. That he doesn't is perhaps due to his motives here -- he himself does not care whether lower income kids are doing better in MS. He wants to complain about Kristof and the NY Times editors, who have no reason to understand the things Somerby says they don't know. Somerby's demand that they must understand the intricacies of NAEP scoring is ridiculous. They are generalists, specializing in journalism. Just like Somerby is not an expert in research methodology but a generalist (hopefully) with a specialty in philosophy, a field that is irrelevant to both education and testing.

    Somerby has no idea what he is talking about today. If he had ever taken a psychology course (which is concerned with measurement of human behavior) he would know why his claims today are nonsense. But he demonstrates the hubris he accuses Kristof of, when he thinks he knows more than he does about how testing works.

    1. Yes, philosophy is irrelevant.

    2. "...Somerby himself is lazy..."
      The theory that Somerby isn't a Right-winger takes another hit.

    3. Philosophy is irrelevant to education policy, as I said.

    4. How do you know philosophy is irrelevant?

    5. It isn’t a degree in elementary education, liberal arts, or child development or anything that would qualify him for a teaching credential. He was teaching 3rd grade.

    6. Philosophy is more poorly defined than irrelevant.

  2. A new set of NAEP scores were just released for the 13 year olds tested in 2022. They show major decreases compared to 2019, largely attributable to covid. Somerby could be discussing them, but he would rather stomp on MS instead. We know what he cares about -- it isn't the kids. He only cares about attacking Kristof because he advanced the notion that kids can improve in reading if effort is put into helping them by their schools. Somerby doesn't believe in progress in education. He has made that abundently clear. Now we see that he doesn't care about covid's impact on learning either. He has never mentioned it.

    What does Somerby think should be done in schools? We don't know because he has never told us. He spends his time here assuring us that no one cares, which is absurd because many of us began reading this blog because we care about education. More have left because it is pretty obvious Somerby is not discussing education at all. He is selling something else here -- something he won't say directly. Is it Murray's old idea that black kids cannot learn, so Head Start and other programs are wasted on them? Is it that black families are dysfunctional so improvement of schools is wasted money? Is it that black kids are dumb by birth so they will not benefit from improvement efforts? Somerby is too much of a coward to tell us what he really thinks. Instead, he attacks the credibility of any program showing positive results, while disaggregating black scores to show us that gaps persist, and telling us that any seeming improvement is the result of cheating, even if no one has found any in the present case.

    Personally, I believe that he is ego-invested in the idea that no one can teach black children, because he had no success with the kids he taught in the Baltimore inner city schools. If he recognizes that black kids can learn, then he might have to abandon the idea of his own abilities, his belief that he is smarter and funnier and cleverer than anyone in the room, because he can manufacture an unfair criticism of his betters, whether Einstein, Godel or Kristof.

    1. His criticism of Einstein was indeed unfair.

    2. If Somerby bothered to consider time dilation and length contraction, he wouldn’t struggle with Einstein’s work as much.

    3. He doesn’t want to understand Einstein.

  3. "MISSISSIPPI'S KIDS: Kristof made two instant mistakes!"

    Previously, Somerby spent a lot of time discussing the difference between a lie and a false statement. Today he doesn't spend any time considering the difference between a mistake and a difference of opinion about a technical issue.

    "For the record, Nicholas Kristof isn't an educational expert. Neither are the careless editors who waved his lengthy essay into print."

    Somerby isn't an education expert either.

    For the record, it is not careless of an editor to "wave" an editorial into print when it is written by an opinion writer on staff. Opinion is owed by the author, not the NY Times editors.

    Somerby briefly tried to become an opinion writer back when cheating scandals were breaking in several districts in different states. He wrote and was interviewed by local news outlets, but couldn't transition into writing as a career after he quit teaching. He set up his blog and started a couple of books that he never finished, perhaps due to lack of publisher interest, or perhaps due to personal reasons. He went into managing a comedy club and doing stand up instead, and is still not an education expert. He is mainly repeating the same things that he said back in the 80's about cheating. But back then he used to emphasize that the NAEP was impervious to cheating. His two big gripes about NAEP were (1) that an increase of 10 points wasn't really equivalent to a grade in school, and (2) that eligibility for free school lunches wasn't really a poverty cutoff because it didn't correspond to other economic poverty indicators. He droned on about these whenever someone gave him the chance by using those terms as shortcuts in a news article. The vitriol increased over the years, always aimed at reporters he called incompetent and uncaring. He didn't always blame their age, Ivy League educations or high salaries, as he does now.

    When we call Somerby lazy, it is partly because he seems to have learned nothing new about education, testing or anything else, since he started this blog. It is the same specious criticisms over and over. This time, he is confused about whether MS cheated on the NAEP or whether NAEP is the cheat-proof test he has always claimed it was.

    Somerby has never mentioned the problem with NAEP, which is that it tests on material that is not necessarily part of the curriculum in all states. If these is material that is enrichment, not standard in some curriculums, who is most likely to have missed exposure to it? Schools in wealthy neighborhoods with high performing kids, or schools in poor neighborhoods with kids who may be struggling with the basics. Might it not be the material that is not part of most schools' curriculums that is causing the poor kids to get low scores? They are less likely to have been exposed to a wide range of knowledge outside their classrooms.

    Somerby has never raised this criticism of NAEP, one that might suggest that the scores of lower income kids are an underestimate of their abilities, compared to those of wealthier kids. Underestimate means they are better at the basic reading and math than they are getting credit for. But Somerby will never suggest this because his motives are to portray poor kids as worse off than they may be. And Somerby's equation is always that if you think low income kids might be improving or doing better, than you obviously don't care about them. But I have to ask -- if the NY Times and Kristof do not care about black and low income kids, why did they bother to write about them?

    Somerby would say it is all pretense, virtue signaling. But then I have to ask -- does Somerby have no virtue to signal, or is he too lazy to even pretend to be happy when a school district does something right?

    1. This blog is not a good use of your time.

    2. I wouldn’t do it if Somerby were fair to those he writes about, including poor black children.

    3. mh addressed the retention issue twice. It isn’t our fault that Somerby doesn’t read his comments. Somerby is wrong.

    4. Could the endless calling out of Bob in the comments be more redundant than the blog itself? Is there anything in this post today he missed in the other four or five on the subject? Bob’s own unproven ( unprovable ?) premise that Kristoff can’t trust the test scores was covered in the first one.

    5. You would have to read the comments to answer your questions. The complaint about the free school lunch cutoff is new to the discussion of MS. No one is forcing you to read Somerby or the comments.

    6. It’s not just Somerby in a vacuum, he generally does little more than repeat right wing talking points.

      Comments here are not merely attacking Somerby for attack’s sake, they are attempting to engage in a discourse about the state of our society and ways of progressing.

    7. Where does Bob say that these Miss schools are not improving? He’s just saying that the media hook about them is phony. This is a media watch blog, not ed reform.

  4. Harry a Litman is God and he knows Phonics.

    1. He seems like an ok guy currently, but he should have done more when he let those corrupt cops get away with murdering a young black man a few years ago.

  5. Curmudgucation blog has a discussion of Teach for America’s rebranding. It provides a taste of what Peter Greene, an education expert, thinks of TFA and the idea that someone can teach inner city kids well with 5 weeks of training.

    1. I like that movie Conrack, but there seems to be a conflict between the underlying sentiment versus the message.

      This is why Kantian ethics can only go so far.

    2. Categorically.

  6. Defund the Supreme Court.

    1. Harlan Crow owns the Supreme Court. Defund Harlan Crow.

    2. And the Kochs.