THURSDAY, JUNE 1, 2023
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.