THE SEARCH: With Storyline, journalists repeat what they've been told!

FRIDAY, JUNE 2, 2023

Instead, we'd suggest a search: In this morning's column about the debt limit, Paul Krugman recalls a certain demographic group—a group which experienced its heyday earlier in this century.

Krugman is discussing the debt limit deal. Along the way, he says this:

KRUGMAN (6/2/23): Democrats are no longer intimidated by deficit scolds. Back in 2011, the Obama administration seemed eager to win approval from a Beltway establishment dominated by Very Serious People who insisted that debt and deficits—as opposed to, say, persistent high unemployment—were the most crucial issue facing the nation. President Barack Obama came very close to agreeing to a bargain that would have raised the age of Medicare eligibility.

Ah yes! The VSPs—the Very Serious People! Way back when, Krugman dropped that moniker on this group. We ourselves remember them well. 

Krugman focuses on this group's devotion to certain budget ideas. Let it be said that the VSPs were also united on matters of educational policy at that same point in time.

At that particular point in time, Naep scores had been rising by large amounts for all major demographic groups. 

After "disaggregation" of Naep scores, black kids' scores had gone up and up, especially in math, then had gone up some more. But disaggregation is boring, confusing and hard, and the VSPs stood in line to declare that "nothing had worked."

This led the VSPs to endorse a certain type of education reform. This was true all through the mainstream press—and we can site no education expert who ever stood up to report, to the nation and to the world, about those rising test scores.

(To his credit, Richard Rothstein came close.)

Earlier, dating back to the 1970s, the VSPs had failed to bark concerning another matter. Even after Dr. John Cannell issued his reports on "The Lake Wobegon Effect," the experts and their echoes in the press failed to come to terms with the way standardized test scores were being invalidated by widespread outright cheating.

Here's the Oxford Reference site on The Lake Wobegon Effect:

"The term was introduced by the US physician John Jacob Cannell in privately published reports in 1987 and 1988, commenting on the fact that all 50 US states reported elementary school results above the national average. 

Alluding to Lake Wobegon, "a place where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average" in a radio show entitled A Prairie Home Companion, created and hosted by the US writer Garrison Keillor.

According to Dr. Cannell, every state was reporting that its kids were scoring above the national average on standardized tests!  It reminded him of the mythical Lake Wobegon, where the children were all above average.

We ourselves had advised Dr. Cannell after his first report appeared. We even dined together, in D.C., on at least one occasion. In part as a result, the second booklet he published on this matter carried this unpleasant title:

How Public Educators Cheat on Standardized Achievement Tests

Was Cannell allowed to say that?

The comical nature of Dr. Cannell's "Lake Wobegon" hook led to a wave of high-profile, but transitory, coverage in the mainstream press. The VSPs and the education experts tended to maintain their silence. Decades later, it fell to much-maligned USA Today, and to the Atlanta Journal Constitution, to blow the whistle on this outrageous type of conduct. 

Here too, the VSPs and the education experts had failed to bark! We offer this as background to our current search, in which we're asking if everything is really as it seems with the state of Mississippi's widely ballyhooed rising Naep scores.

At this point, it might make sense to define the elusive term "search." According to the leading authority on the topic, the protagonist of Walker Percy's debut novel was explicitly engaged in a "search:"

The Moviegoer tells the story of Jack "Binx" Bolling, a young stock-broker in postwar New Orleans. The decline of tradition in the Southern United States, the problems of his family and his traumatic experiences in the Korean War have left him alienated from his own life. He daydreams constantly, has trouble engaging in lasting relationships, and finds more meaning and immediacy in cinema and literature than in his own routine life.

The loose plot of the novel follows the Moviegoer himself, Binx Bolling, in desperate need of spiritual redemption. At Mardi Gras, he breaks out of his caged everyday life and launches himself on a journey, a quest, in a "search" for God. Without any mental compass or sense of direction, he wanders the streets of New Orleans' French Quarter, and Chicago, and then travels the Gulf Coast, interacting with his surroundings as he goes. He has philosophical moments, reflecting on the people and things he encounters on the road. He is constantly challenged to define himself in relation to friends, family, sweethearts, and career despite his urge to remain vague and open to possibility.

"What is the nature of the search?" you ask. Really it is very simple; at least for a fellow like me. So simple that it is easily overlooked. The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life.

In italics, that's a quote from Bolling himself, as he narrates the book.

You're right! In his constant daydreaming—in his lack of a mental compass or a sense of direction—Bolling sounds like a forerunner to the modern cable news star! 

That much is perfectly obvious. But in that italicized passage, Bolling defines "the search:"

The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life.

In our view, that's a bit vague. We'll go with this alternate definition:

The search is what a person may undertake after renouncing devotion to establishment Storyline. 

True story! We believe we were assigned to read The Moviegoer as part of a seminar we took at MIT in our senior year in college. (First semester: Husserl and Heidegger. Second semester: Kierkegaard, the morbid Dane.)

The instructor was Terry Malick, the future renowned film director, who was then 26 years old. Backfill:

Malick, a very good person, was a friend of a friend at that time. Along with that mutual friend, then joined by our girlfriend of the time, we dined with him at a Mass Avenue diner before each Thursday night class.

We were told, a few years ago, that the whole bunch of us, plus the future Governor Weld, had weekended on Nantucket at one point in time. We don't remember that sojourn at all, but our then-girlfriend claims a visceral memory of the blueberry pancakes.

We thought she was crazy when she said that Weld had been along for the ride. With great skill, we googled "Malick AND Weld," learning that the two had been fast friends dating back to their undergraduate years.

True story! In the second semester of the MIT course, our girlfriend wrote a paper on The Moviegoer which Malick judged to be so spectacular that he immediately shipped it off to Walker Percy himself! If memory serves, Percy quickly wrote back, seconding Malick's emotion.

Even then, the movers and shakers played the game this way! This was just one of the many indignities with which we were forced to deal as graduation—and an intermittent search—loomed upon the horizon.

Binx Bolling conducted a search—a search we've always found a bit tedious. After a few years teaching fifth grade in the Baltimore City Schools, we ourselves tumbled into an intermittent lifelong search.

Long before we dined with Dr. Cannell, we had learned about overt cheating on standardized tests in one Baltimore grade school. The search got its start right there, then continued through subsequent chapters. 

(We first learned of the possibility of "erasure parties" right around 1981, thanks to a major executive at one major standardized test.)

What must a person do when he's conducting a search? Returning to Nicholas Kristof's trip to the South, here's what he mustn't do:

A person who is conducting a search can't believe everything he's told, even by well-intentioned parties.  He can't assume that what he's shown in a second grade classroom is exactly the way it seems, although it certainly could be.

If a person wants to conduct a search, he must set out on his own! He must conduct an exploration, one which eschews the Storyline preferred by VSPs.

As we mentioned yesterday, we love Kristof's values. When it comes to journalistic performance, we think, at times, that he's too inclined to roll with the VSPs.

So it went in yesterday's essay, in which he repeated the things he's been told about Mississippi's public schools, where (some) Naep scores have been rising.

Why have Naep scores soared in Mississippi in Grade 4 (if not in Grade 8?) Uh-oh! As with the May 17 Associated Press report, Kristof says that this procedure is one of the basic secrets of the state's apparent success:

KRISTOF (6/1/23): Perhaps the most important single element of the 2013 legislative package was a test informally called the third-grade gate: Any child who does not pass a reading test at the end of third grade is held back and has to redo the year.

This was controversial. Would this mean holding back a disproportionate share of Black and brown children from low-income families, leaving them demoralized and stigmatized? What about children with learning disabilities?

In fact, the third-grade gate lit a fire under Mississippi. It injected accountability: Principals, teachers, parents and children themselves were galvanized to ensure that kids actually learned to read. Each child’s progress in reading is carefully monitored, and those who lag—as early as kindergarten and ramping up in second and third grades—are given additional tutoring.

Interesting! If kids can't pass that reading test, they have to repeat third grade! (For the AP's account of this policy, click here.)

 If kids can't pass that reading test, they have to repeat third grade! That may or may not be a good idea. A bit later, Kristof offers more information:

KRISTOF: In the town of Leland in the Mississippi Delta, one of the poorest parts of America, parents and family members come early on the day of the big [end of Grade 3] exam and line a hallway at the elementary school, cheering madly as the kids walk through to take the test—like champion football players taking the field. And when I visited, 35 new bicycles were on display in the school gym, donated by the community to be awarded by lottery to those who passed.

Those who did not pass would get a second chance at the end of the school year. Children who fail this second try are urged to enroll in summer school as a last desperate effort to raise reading levels. Those who fail a third time are held back—about 9 percent of third graders...

Free bikes to the side, Kristof says that nine (9) percent of Mississippi's third graders have to repeat third grade.

On balance, that could be a good idea. Opinions on that sort of policy have long differed.

That said, could that policy possibly have the effect of (artificially) inflating Mississippi's Grade 4 Naep scores? Could it create a situation where Mississippi has a statistical advantage over other states—over states which don't hold third graders back?

To our ear, Kristof was churning Storyline. We'd already restarted the search.

Starting Monday: Let's take a look at the data


  1. Are you Terrance Malick?

  2. This extended babbling may have been triggered by Bob’s inability to respond to the latest on Trump. This story flies in the face of Bob’s insanity, or ignorance defense.

  3. "With Storyline, journalists repeat what they've been told!"

    The person who wrote the AP article did not just repeat what she was told. She interviewed people and asked questions. There is no reason why she should have suspected cheating or asking suspicious, paranoid questions.

    Journalists largely report the news. Somerby perhaps thinks that every journalists should do investigative work, like Woodward & Bernstein did in the movies. (In real life, people told them things, for their own purposes, and told them who to go talk to, much the way leakers still do. The big picture came from later testimony and tapes, not journalists, who mainly reported findings, much as they do for today's court proceedings and congressional hearings.

    Why on earth would anyone think there should be such detective work concerning a transitory set of NAEP scores that mean nothing at all to the general public, except that some school are improving? Somerby himself says he believes there has been improvement. So why the fuss over how deep into the weeds a single AP reporter wades, or an off-hand remark by Morning Joe?

    This is such a huge nothingburger that it is no big surprise that no one cares to comment on it today. Why did Somerby even bother writing his essay today? Just to prove he's still alive? If so, that is really pathetic.

    1. Because those potentially bogus scores can be used (are used) to set a journalistic trend?

      Sounds like it could be a problem.

    2. “Potentially” bogus. LOL.

  4. How is it that Somerby gets to excoriate the VSPs for not acknowledging the progress made on NAEP scores, while himself calling for investigation of Mississippi because it increased its own NAEP scores over a decade? Isn't Somerby making the same mistake they did (by his telling)?

  5. "On balance, that could be a good idea. Opinions on that sort of policy have long differed."

    On balance, finding a way for a child to work with a reading specialist while advancing to fourth grade, tends to avoid the disruption and social embarrassment of being held back. Does Somerby actually care about the needs of the kids he used to teach?

    Doing more of the same thing is not as good an idea as diagnosing the specific problems of those 9% who failed to master reading, and having someone who specializes in reading disorders work with them, instead of just repeating the same material they already failed to learn from.

  6. What Somerby calls "his search" is mostly mental masturbation. He should be embarrassed to be doing that in public like this.

  7. Blaming a journalist for promoting storyline is ridiculous. The job of a journalist is to tell us stories about what has happened in the world. Somerby perhaps is confused and thinks stories are only fiction, but the word only refers to a narrative structure used to report both nonfiction and fiction. That narrative structure arises because of the way people think (in time sequence, with causality, desdribing relationships among people, with a beginning and end). It is not a bad thing, the way Somerby calls it, and he is an idiot to think that reading information in a natural and undertandable way is anything bad or wrong.

    1. Ah, I think he’s talking about a dumb, hackneyed, false storyline. A herd thing, because they’re lazy.

    2. You cannot complain about a "herd thing" while also complaining that no one is covering stories about education.

    3. “Dumb, hackneyed, false” 10:10? Somerby has yet to show anything was false about Mississippi’s score increases. He’s spent 12 posts not proving that.

  8. As a Times subscriber, I read Krugman's entire column. I weep for the column he could have written. He is a brilliant economist. He could have written an informative economic analysis of the impact of various levels of deficit and debt. He could have addressed foreign bank practices, the projected growth of interest on the national debt, and other economic issues.

    Instead, he wrote the usual pap, which is routinely produced by both sides. He blamed everything on the other side. He explained what bad people the other siders are.

    What a waste.:(

    1. When a Nobel prizewinner warns me about the economics of the other side, I listen.

    2. Yes, Krugman may be right when he criticizes conservative economic policies. Or, conservative Nobel economists may be right when they criticize liberal economic policies. However, even if Krugman is right, he missed the chance to teach some economics to his readers.

    3. If people wanted to learn economics, they wouldn't do it by reading opinion pieces in the NY Times. Krugman is right to write for a lay audience and give people the bottom line.

      If Somerby did that when he talks NAEP scores, people here might still be listening to him, but he is fixated on technical details and never tells anyone what he really thinks about anything.

    4. I think he’s done those kind of columns many times. His Twitter page too.

  9. Oh that’ll work.

    Pauline Kael tells a great story about the time she badly panned a Malick film. William Shawn calls her into his office and says that he can’t print her piece this way because, as she quoted him, “He’s like a son to me..”

    So the guy was obviously well connected from the beginning. Makes me glad I’m from California.

  10. Somerby has complained because the AP article’s author did not consider that MS may have cheated on the NAEP test. All those ratty schools are huge cheats, Somerby sez.