THE SEARCH: Kristof discovers the public schools!


Accepts what the experts have said: Nicholas Kristof has excellent values. We've often noted this fact.

On occasion, those excellent values have been outstripped by the journalistic performance. We're forced to report a nagging sense that this may perhaps have happened in his (important) new column.

(Full disclosure: In October 2021, Kristof left his job at the New York Times to run for governor of his native state, Oregon. We would have voted for him in a Yamhill, Oregon minute.

(In February 2022, he learned that he wasn't eligible to run for governor of Oregon! So it has occasionally gone as Kristof applies his values.)

As of this morning, Nicholas Kristof, returned to the Times, has discovered the public schools. He's also discovered the state of Mississippi—and he's typing an extremely familiar old novel about the public schools.

To his credit, and as a sign of good sense, he doesn't use the term "Mississippi miracle," as the Associated Press did in this report back on May 17.

On the other hand, Kristof opens his column in a way which seems to have been lifted, live and direct, from that AP report. Upbeat headline included, Kristof starts today's column as shown:

Mississippi Is Offering Lessons for America on Education

JACKSON, Miss. — 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 this state today and find something dazzling: It is lifting education outcomes and soaring in the national rankings. With an all-out effort over the past decade to get all children to read by the end of third grade and by extensive reliance on research and metrics, Mississippi has shown that it is possible to raise standards even in a state ranked dead last in the country in child poverty and hunger and second highest in teen births.

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.

Back on May 17, the Associated Press began its report with that same "Thank God for Mississippi" hook. As Kristof continues, he matches the AP's general claims about growing levels of achievement in Mississippi's public schools, and he offers the same explanations for the state's rising test scores.

Immediately, let's be clear:

We don't doubt, not for a Yazoo City minute, that the state of Mississippi has been engaged in deeply admirable efforts to improve its public schools. 

We also don't doubt the idea that those efforts have produced real improvements in the academic attainments, and in the daily happiness, of Mississippi's public school kids.

We don't doubt those general claims. We do doubt that ability of people like Kristof to evaluate such matters with basic technical competence. 

Based on experience, we also doubt the work of our education experts, who have been cluelessly staring off into space during a spate of developments over the past fifty years.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep, but the education experts have often been missing in action. To cite one example:

It wasn't the experts who blew the whistle on the widespread public school cheating which finally came to light over a decade ago. Indeed, it wasn't even the New York Times or the Washington Post!

It was lightly regarded USA Today who blew the whistle on that mess; it was the Atlanta Journal Constitution. It fell to them to blow the whistle where the mighty had stayed silent for amazingly long.

None of that tells us what has and hasn't occurred in Mississippi's schools. In the passage shown below, Kristof describes the excitement and pride he saw in a few of Mississippi's schools. Also, he quotes one expert observer:

KRISTOF (6/1/23): “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.

For the record, do "race gaps persist" in Mississippi, in spite of the revolution? 

That would be an understatement. Here are the relevant scores:

Average scores, Mississippi public schools
Grade 4 reading, Naep, 2022
Black kids: 204.42
White kids: 229.53

Based on a very rough but widely utilized rule of thumb, the white kids outperformed the black kids by well more than two academic years—at the end of four years of schooling! 

Say you've found a revolution? We might want to keep such data in mind when we speak about such things.

At any rate, Kristof was thrilled by what he saw in the halls of some of Mississippi's schools. That said, readers may recall the way we ourselves were thrilled by several visits to a public school in North Carolina on the occasion of that school's annual spelling bees. 

The student population of that particular school was highly diverse, but on balance the school was low-income. Based on the happiness, performance and effort we saw in that school, we thought we'd died and gone to heaven. 

We also saw that that school's test scores for black and Hispanic kids were below the average for those same groups across the state of North Carolina. Based on what we had seen in that school, we were amazed to think that other schools across North Carolina were producing stronger results. 

How good could all those other schools be? we wondered after those visits.

Our point here is simple:

It's our impression that a lot of people have worked very hard to improve the nation's public schools. By all accounts, that includes a lot of very good people in the state of Mississippi—people who are working had right up to the present day.

Along the way, Naep scores rose and rose, then rose some more for all major demographic groups, at least until recent years. But journalists like Kristof were utterly clueless about this fact, and in a stunning refusal to serve, the education experts never spoke up. 

Even as scores for black kids rose and rose, journalists at the New York Times kept insisting that "nothing has worked." The cluelessness was overwhelming, as was the journalistic indolence. The experts should have spoken up, but simply put, they didn't.

We wonder if that indolence has possibly continued today. Question:

Why have Naep scores improved in the state of Mississippi? In today's column, Kristof offers the same basic explanations which appeared in the May 17 AP report.

We'll review those basic explanations tomorrow. We'll also offer a warning:

In just the first three paragraphs of today's column, it seems that Kristof may have made several basic mistakes. Along the way, other possible mistakes involve an important question:

How much have Mississippi's test scores improved? By how much have those scores improved after fully adjusting for demographics? 

More specifically, to what extent do those scores still seem miraculous after making one particular statistical adjustment—an adjustment which is largely going ignored in all the current excitement? In tomorrow's report, we'll start to explain what we mean.

By all accounts, an array of people in Mississippi have worked very hard to improve the state's public schools. We saw their counterparts in North Carolina. We don't doubt for a "goin' to Jackson" minute that they have improved Mississippi's schools.

That said, by how much have those schools improved? What can we draw from a fuller look at the state's Naep scores?

In this latest stampede of Storyline, one basic statistical adjustment is being ignored. It involves one of the basic reforms cited as the key to Mississippi's success. 

Tomorrow, we'll look at Kristof's explanation, and at the AP's. For today, we'll leave you with this:

Once again, there's a lot of excitement among the education experts. The journalists are buying what they're being told.

There's a lot of excitement among the experts. Strange as it seems—and to us, it's quite strange—these people have often been wrong!

Tomorrow: Phonics instruction and early screening—and holding third graders back

After adjusting for income: Do "race gaps persist" in Mississippi? Here are the relevant scores after making one major adjustment for income:

Average scores, Mississippi public schools
Grade 4 reading, Naep, 2022
Lower-income black kids: 202.76
Lower-income white kids: 224.45

 The "achievement gap" is somewhat smaller. but it's still more than two years. Those average scores were recorded by the kids who were eligible for the federal lunch program.

Further adjustments may be possible. For all Naep data, start here.


  1. Karen is innocent.

    1. Karen is a generic term.

      "Karen is a pejorative slang term for an obnoxious, angry, entitled, and often racist middle-aged white woman who uses her privilege to get her way or police other people’s behaviors."

      It doesn't refer to any specific person. If you mean that the Citi Bike Karen, Sarah Jane Comrie, is innocent, then say so. Many other Karens are not innocent.

    2. Sarah Jane Comrie is innocent. Her anonymous accuser is guilty.

      She might lose her job, so she started a gofundme. He’s not losing anything, but he started a gofundme, too.

    3. She should lose her job if she hasn't got the sense to just take a different bike, instead of fighting in racist ways to bully a black teenager. Her job requires her to do responsible things interacting with a variety of people, some black, some young, some even foolish, frightened, uncooperative, angry, or gravely ill and not thinking clearly. How can she deal with such people in her job if she cannot handle this trivial situation on her way home, without calling for help, pretending to cry, and portraying a teen as an attacker? She doesn't sound like much of an employee to me. She sounds like someone who would eventually cause her employer major problems.

  2. The second amendment is evil.

  3. Defund the Supreme Court.

  4. Kristof, always a suspect figure, is now marketing himself to the Times in a commercially effective fashion: the liberal humanitarian who sports right platitudes.
    Beyond that Bob stretches out what could have been said (more effectively) in a few sentences til it feels endless. He may be worried in that his defense of Trump on documents seems to have taken a real hit.,

  5. Phonics is the base of reading.

    1. As I posted yesterday, 40-45% of children learn to read without needing phonics. The remaining children benefit from phonics instruction. Even so, 5% struggle and require more specialized intervention.

      Is it accurate to call phonics the "base" of reading when it is unnecessary to such a large %. Some kids learn to read before entering school, without any exposure to phonics-based instruction at all.

      "Two percent of pupils (1in 50) begin kindergarten able to read simple sight words, and 1 percent are also able to read more complex words in sentences. These children already know how to read."

      Yes, these are gifted kids, but how are they learning to read without phonics? For that matter, how did the many people who learned to read without phonics in elementary school do it, if phonics is the base?

      Somerby's message is about not overhyping progress. The claims made for phonics strike me as being overhyped. Yes, phonics helps many kids, but pushing it the way you have been doing seems inappropriate.

    2. They learned phonics at home. They were curious, and their parents told them what sounds the letters represented.

      I particularly remember learning that PH could represent the same sound as F. I already knew, because I was told, what sounds the individual letters typically represented.

      I kept learning more combinations, because I was curious. Most kids need formal instruction — beginning with phonics. They deserve this support.

    3. Phonics is God.

    4. @12:32. Nonsense

    5. Kids who learn to read before entering school are doing it for a purpose. They want to know the stories in the books they are reading. They are not doing it to notice how some words rhyme and others don't look the way they sound. They are not focused on the sounds at all, but on the stories in their books. They absorb the spelling of difficult words by seeing those words repeatedly in the context of books.

      I recall sitting on a carpet while a teacher showed us a picture of an airplane together with the word plane. She said, "this word means plane" and I remember thinking "of course it does, what else would it mean". That is called learning by recognition. It is what happens when kids have lots of experience seeing words in context before learning them in school. There is no sounding out and no phonics drilling. It happens naturally via reading experience for many kids.

      I have no problem with using phonics to teach kids who are having difficulties. Why can't the phonics people take that success and stop trying to make this some sort of total victory in which they must rule out all the others ways that kids learn to read, that do not involve phonics at all?

    6. The word might have meant many things. Just a few examples:

      After learning “plane” how did you learn “plan”?

      There are other motives for reading, besides stories. The kid might care about labels on cans and jars. Or personal names. Or the TV schedule!

    7. What if we show some kids a picture of a horse over the word “Equus”. So, next time they see “Equus” should they say “Horse”?

    8. The goal of reading is to understand written text, not to play word games.

    9. Want to understand written text? Start with phonics!

      Read text with or without pictures. Read stories, labels, lists, instructions. Read unfamiliar words or even newly coined words. Read blogs and tweets.

      It all starts with phonics!

    10. Please cite a source fot that, one that doesn’t come from phonics promo ads.


  6. "It wasn't the experts who blew the whistle on the widespread public school cheating which finally came to light over a decade ago. Indeed, it wasn't even the New York Times or the Washington Post!

    It was lightly regarded USA Today who blew the whistle on that mess; it was the Atlanta Journal Constitution. It fell to them to blow the whistle where the mighty had stayed silent for amazingly long."

    Somerby just doesn't understand the difference between local and national news. What happens in school districts is LOCAL. That's why local papers report on it and not the NY Times. Imagine how crowded the NY Times Education Section would be if it reported every development in every school district in every city, county or state in our nation, on an ongoing basis. That's why the NY Times reports developments in NYC and also national news about education, but not which local districts are having their budgets cut or adopting a new reading program or fired their superintendent for enabling cheating on standardized tests.

    Have administrators cheated on tests? Of course. Somerby's own Baltimore district was caught cheating in 2011, according to Somerby's own mention a few days back:

    "BALTIMORE (WJZ) --The head of Baltimore City schools vows to crack down on cheating after a test tampering scandal. Now parents are having their say...

    Many parents are outraged over the cheating scandal involving two Baltimore city schools: Fort Worthington and Abbottston elementary schools, where state investigators noted a large number of erasure marks on Maryland assessment tests, changed answers, and at Fort Worthington, they also found altered attendance records."

    But consider this:

    "Shaeffer of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing said federal and state requirements are partly to blame when educators cheat.

    "The pressures from No Child Left Behind and state accountability rules create a situation in which many educators feel they have to boost scores by hook or by crook," he said. "And as in any profession, the more you ratchet up pressure, the more people crack ethically."

    Somerby has never mentioned NCLB, which made school funding dependent on standardized test scores. NCLB was widely regarded as unfair to schools and strongly opposed by teachers because of the classroom time needed to prepare for mandated tests. It makes more sense to regard this cheating as resistance to procedures imposed on schools, than an ethical failure.

    Even Somerby should notice the timing of the advocacy and implementation of value-added teacher evaluation and these cheating scandals. No Child Left Behind was implemented after 2003 and led to teachers using more class time to prepare their students for high-stakes tests that were used to determine school funding. Toward the end of that decade, schools began using those tests to compute value-added teacher effectiveness scores that measured the improvement in their students' performance and used such scores to determine teacher compensation.

    Somerby rarely considers context in anything he reads or writes. Somerby has never mentioned the widespread complaints by teachers and education experts that focusing heavily on testing was leading to neglect of other important class activities, resulting in less opportunity to teach important material not easily measurable by standardized tests.

    I have never seen Somerby give any thought to any of this, even though it was widely discussed and debated among teachers.

  7. Now this is being raised as a political issue, in the context of conservative attacks on public education. Somerby has no evidence of any recent cheating, as he himself repeats with respect to Mississippi. Why then is he insisting that cheating may be happening and needs to be "investigated"? You don't accuse someone of wrongdoing as a routine matter, but only with evidence to support suspicions. A stance of habitual accusation based on paranoia is inappropriate, whether aimed at our schools, or any other institution upon which people rely. These past occurrences are not evidence that 15-20 years later, the schools must still be cheating on national tests.

  8. Mississippi wasn't requiring its teachers to have much training in reading instruction until it passed a state law requiring improvement of reading scores. Then it implemented new requirements that teachers receive training in reading instruction. It also implemented a new curriculum including phonics instruction, but it is unclear whether the improved teacher training to become certified or the new phonics curriculum was responsible for the improvement in reading test scores.

    This article is biased towards phonics, but it gives a description of the lack of training of teachers prior to the changes made in Mississippi:

    1. When there has been extensive change in requirements for teacher training and the implementation of new programs, both of which would account for improvement in reading scores, why hypothesize that schools are cheating on the NAEP (a test describes as low-states and difficult to cheat on)?

      Occam's razor: the principle (attributed to William of Occam) that in explaining a thing no more assumptions should be made than are necessary.

      It is not necessary to assume cheating has occurred, as Somerby keeps doing, when there are other, more likely explanations for the improvement in reading scores in Mississippi.

  9. Somerby expects too much of Kristof. Kristof is a bright man who writes very well, but he cannot be an expert in all the different topics he writes about. All we can hope for is a thoughtful reaction from an intelligent amateur. IMO Kristof fulfills that role.

  10. Defund the Supreme Court.

  11. "In just the first three paragraphs of today's column, it seems that Kristof may have made several basic mistakes. Along the way, other possible mistakes involve an important question:

    How much have Mississippi's test scores improved? By how much have those scores improved after fully adjusting for demographics? "

    Most people consider numbers to be a means to an end, such as understanding a phenomenon. The numbers are not the goal.

    Somerby appears to consider the numbers to be the product, the end point, the goal of talking about school improvement. If Kristof makes a few technical errors, has he gotten the main points wrong? Are his conclusions, his overall statements wrong? Are the technical points Somerby usually raises really that important to an overall understanding of what has been happening in MS? Somerby doesn't tell us that because he thinks the intricacies of the NAEP breakdowns are the point, not the message about how learning was achieved in a poor state that was far behind the curve 10 years ago.

  12. We live in a barred spiral galaxy.