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Print view: We take the New York Times back to school about those rising test scores
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WHO CARES ABOUT BLACK KIDS! We take the New York Times back to school about those rising test scores: // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, MAY 13, 2011

Classic narrative promulgation! Newt Gingrich is full of ideas: The press corps simply loves its scripts. One such script, about Newt Gingrich, is virtually mandated by the tenets of press corps Hard Pundit Law.

In yesterday’s Washington Post, Dan Balz reported on Gingrich’s entry into the presidential race. That mandated script appeared quite early in this front-page report:

BALZ (5/12/11): The tweet finally landed at 4:19 p.m. Wednesday. Former House speaker Newt Gingrich, a fixture in the Republican Party for three decades, became a candidate for president.

Though it was long expected, the announcement was something of a milestone in presidential politics—the first such declaration via Twitter, with the requisite link to his video statement.

Like others in the Republican field, Gingrich, 67, has been moving steadily toward a candidacy for months. But in formally declaring, he set himself on an uncertain journey that will test whether his assets can overcome his liabilities.

There are many questions he will confront. Gingrich is an idea-spewing machine, unlike anyone else in the Republican Party. But does America want a one-man think tank, particularly one with his history, as its president?

This report wasn’t a puff piece; it dealt with unflattering parts of Gingrich’s profile. But the mandated script appeared quite quickly:

Newt Gingrich is a one-man think tank! He’s constantly spewing ideas!

That’s a fully mandated script about Gingrich, much like the earlier “John McCain is a straight-talking maverick” shibboleth. That said, we’ve always been puzzled by this particular mandated press corps script.

What are Gingrich’s famous ideas? Plainly, there must be millions; when it comes to the spewing of ideas, the man is a stone-cold machine. But in all honesty, we can’t name any Gingrich ideas. Nor did Balz list a bunch of his best ideas. Perhaps there are simply too many.

Luckily, Balz included a link under the phrase “one-man think tank.” When we clicked the link, we received a lesson in the way press scripting works.

Balz linked to this video by Chris Cillizza, another ranking Post scribe. The video runs less than two minutes. Roughly twenty seconds in, Cillizza took us where the rubber kissed the road:

CILLIZZA: Is Gingrich a serious candidate for the nomination? He has considerable strengths. He’s universally known among Republican primary voters, is a proven fund-raiser, and is widely regarded as the brightest policy mind in the party. Those strengths are offset by equally large weaknesses.

That highlighted phrase represents Cillizza’s full discussion of Newt’s barrelful of ideas.

From this episode, we got a lesson in the logic of script confirmation:

Balz wanted to support his claim that Newt is a one-man think tank. How could he prove this claim was true? Simple! By standard press corps logic, his claim is true because some other journalist has recently said the same thing! Rather, that second journalist said that other people think the claim is true.

Balz can prove his claim is true; it’s true because Cillizza said it! We’re rarely seen a clearer display of this way this syndrome works.

This script includes an optional rider: As you will see in the next few weeks, this script permits a guild-sanctioned add-on. Displaying his expertise, Balz soon rattled it off:

BALZ: The knock on Gingrich, of course, is that he throws out ideas so rapidly that he can barely distinguish between good and bad ones. As the story goes, the staff at the National Republican Congressional Committee used to keep a file cabinet labeled "Newt's Ideas." Most of the space was reserved for "Newt's Bad Ideas."

Gingrich has operated with the philosophy that it's better to have 25 things to say than one or two.

Full script about the newest contender: Newt Gingrich has a million ideas, most of which are bad.

DOES ANYONE CARE ABOUT BLACK KIDS (permalink): Does anyone care about black kids? Does anyone care enough to report or discuss their educational progress? For us, a recent report in the New York Times raised this important question.

But first, a look at Gail Collins’ attempt to discuss our public schools.

You’re right! We aren’t big Collins fans around here; on the whole, we think her work represents a familiar type of counter-productive, pseudo-liberal hackwork. Last Thursday, she did one of the smaller things for which we dislike her oeuvre. She started with one of her eye-rolling smirks at the comical, lower-class tastes of one of those hopeless red states:

COLLINS (5/5/11): Let us stop for a minute to consider Mitch Daniels, the governor of Indiana.

Bet you didn't see that one coming.

Many of you may be unacquainted with Daniels. After all, a lot of Americans go for years on end without ever setting foot in Indiana even though it is a fine state, full of lovely people and some first-class universities, not to mention the RV Hall of Fame, the world's largest ball of paint and the Dan Quayle museum.

But about Mitch Daniels...

We know—you think we’re nit-picking here. Sorry. Collins mocks the rube states fairly often. It’s a classic example of the way top-shelf “liberals” tell the unwashed that they aren’t liked or respected. After that, we ask ourselves why these idiots won’t vote the way we prefer.

This is very dumb politics. Collins seems to enjoy it.

To our ear, an element of this sneering seemed to lurk in yesterday’s column, in which Collins pretended to discuss the needs of our public schools. We have no idea how Collins selected her rather narrow issue focus—but we saw no sign that she had any particular knowledge about those issues. We did see a great deal of smirking about those silly redneck rubes in Texas (and, to a lesser extent, in Florida).

The bulk of her column was focused on the stupid things people in Texas do. As Collins notes, this is a fairly typical focus of her work.

Here’s the larger point: Readers may come away from that column thinking that Texas must have lousy schools. This notion is pleasing to pseudo-liberals; a few months ago, the endlessly phony Diane Ravitch wrote a column plainly intended to convey that pleasing impression (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/23/11). This impression is pleasing to some liberal readers because we get to laugh at those dumb-assed Texans. We also get to laugh at George W. Bush, who created the big mess down there.

As we read Collins’ newest column, we couldn’t help wondering: Does Collins know that Texas schools score extremely well on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (the NAEP), the widely ballyhooed “gold standard” of educational testing? Does she know that Texas kids in all major demographic groups outscore their national peers, often by a wide margin? You’d never get any such idea from reading Collins’ smirking column. We don’t know if Collins knows those facts, but we’ll guess she doesn’t.

Technically, Texas test scores aren’t relevant to Collins’ new column. But we think her undercurrent was familiar and rather clear.

But then, does anyone care about black kids? Consider this recent news report by Sam Dillon, one of the New York Times’ education reporters.

Dillon discussed an intriguing question: When high school students take “advanced placement” courses, are the courses really advanced? Dillon suggests that, in many schools, these classes are “advanced” in name only. According to Dillon, “Algebra II is sometimes just Algebra I. And College Preparatory Biology can be just Biology.”

This was a perfectly valid topic, although we were underwhelmed by some of Dillon’s analysis. But one fleeting passage brought the analysts right out of their chairs. In the highlighted passage, Dillon discusses American student achievement over the past forty years. He refers to student performance on the NAEP. We think his account is misleading and unfortunate:

DILLON (4/26/11): ''[C]ourse titles may bear little relationship to what students have actually learned,'' said Dr. Mellor, who has analyzed course completion, test records and other student data in Texas. ''We see students taking more and more advanced courses, but still not performing well on end-of-course exams.''

The 2009 results—the most recent available—of the federal test that measures change in achievement levels over decades showed that the nation's 17-year-olds were scoring no higher in reading and math than in 1973. SAT scores have dropped or flat-lined, too, since 2000.

But a federal study released this month of nearly 38,000 high school transcripts showed that the proportion of graduates completing a rigorous curriculum rose to 13 percent in 2009 from 5 percent in 1990.

Let’s get the small errors out of the way. First, Dillon actually refers to the 2008 results of the test in question, the so-called “Long-Term Trend” NAEP; no such testing was done in 2009. Second, the NAEP didn’t give the “long-term” reading test in 1973. Beyond that, the use of SAT scores for this kind of assessment is quite shaky, as everyone knows.

But let’s return to that highlighted passage—a passage which can be defended as technically accurate. According to Dillon, “the nation's 17-year-olds were scoring no higher in reading and math [in 2008] than in 1973.”

We think that statement is highly misleading, in ways which don’t serve the republic.

For now, let’s skip the ways in which that statement is technically accurate. Instead, let’s focus on the story Dillon doesn’t tell. Question: If we just consider the nation’s black students, how did 17-year-olds score in 2008 as compared to 1971 or 1973?

As citizens, we ought to know the answer. Very few people do.

The answer: Black students scored substantially higher in 2008 than in the early 1970s. This was true in both reading and math. For example:

In reading, black 17-year-olds gained 27 points on the NAEP scale over that period. How large a gain does that represent? Experts often apply a very rough rule of thumb in which ten points on the NAEP scale represents one academic year. Applying that rough rule of thumb, black 17-year-old students gained almost three years over that period, despite the fact that fewer such students drop out.

(Over that same period, the score gain in reading for black 13-year-olds was slightly higher.)

In math, the score gains aren’t as large for the older students, but they still exist. Black 17-year-olds have gained 17 points on the NAEP scale since 1973. Since changing drop-out rates can confuse the picture at this age level, a second fact might be noted: The gains for black 13-year-olds are much greater. In math, black 13-year-olds gained a massive 39 points on the NAEP scale over that period.

(Presumably, almost all 13-year-olds are still in school. For that reason, changing drop-out rates don’t cloud the statistical picture at this age.)

Citizens should know these basic facts; journalists should analyze them. Since we liberals routinely announce our greatness in matters of race, we should know these facts most of all. But alas! It is virtually against the law to report good news about American test scores. Liberals thrill to Ravitch’s claims that nothing has been getting better—even though this gloomy, misleading claim undermines the public’s faith in what our teachers and students can achieve within our public schools.

(Many liberals like Ravitch’s claim because it lets us party about George Bush’s consummate dumbness.)

We were bugged by Dillon’s piece last month, as we often are by such reporting. You ought to know that his highlighted claim obscures some promising data. The refusal to discuss score gains is amazingly standard in modern press culture. We liberals thrill to misleading, gloomy claims. In the process, liberal interests get hammered.

Or does no one actually care? These are just black kids, after all. When’s the last time anyone on your “liberal” TV shows said squat or squadoosh about them?