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Daily Howler: The New York Times prints a simple tale about Princeton High's achievement gap
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FINE LIKE ME! The New York Times prints a simple tale about Princeton High’s achievement gap: // link // print // previous // next //

“MIDST HIGH EUCALYPTUS:” Until next Tuesday, we’re off to the reunion of Aragon High School’s class of 1965. San Mateo, California, of course.

Future media heavyweights were all around as we went through Aragon. Our own Bob Bazell (Aragon 63) is now NBC’s main science reporter. A few miles down the Alameda, at our “rival,” Hillsdale High, the Post’s Jay Mathews (Hillsdale circa 63) was in attendance. And midway between, you could find Serra High. When you think Serra, you think Tom Brady, Barry Bonds and Lynn Swann. But we think Bill Keller (Serra 66), forced to attend an all-male school while the party at Aragon was transpiring.

At that time and place, it was admittedly tough for the youngster who didn’t get to go to Aragon. At the Post and Newsweek, Matthews has helped pioneer the surveys which rate the nation’s high schools and colleges—work which has sometimes stirred controversy. But any Aragon kid of the era can see the “Rosebud” aspect of Jay’s work. We understand why a Hillsdale kid would spend later years as Jay has done—engaged in a deeply sublimated search for a better high school.

We found it courageous when Jay admitted, in a 2000 op-ed, that yes, the long-standing rumors were true—that through absolutely no fault of his own, he had attended Hillsdale High during the early to mid-1960s. Note: Jay’s piece was a profile of Coach Dick Vermeil—a young high school coach who cut and ran when Aragon opened down the street in 1962. After we opened, “Coach” just knew—if he hoped to win the Big One, it would have to be in the NFL.

FINE LIKE ME: When it comes to the education of minority kids, the pseudo-liberal impulse is unending. In today’s New York Times, for example, education writer Samuel Freedman explains the racial “achievement gap” at upscale Princeton (N.J.) High. According to Freedman, this “prosperous, accomplished school district” has a “dirty little secret, a racial achievement gap that has been observed, acknowledged and left uncorrected for decades.” (Luckily, “that pattern just may have to change under the pressure of the federal No Child Left Behind law,” the gullible Timesperson says.)

There does seem to be an achievement gap at Princeton High, according to the murky, limited data offered in Freedman’s article. (He notes that 37 percent of Princeton’s 11th graders failed to pass last year’s standardized English test.) But how can Princeton “correct” that “uncorrected” gap? And oh yeah—what’s the cause of the gap? When he gets around to saying, Freedman’s explanation is simply inane:

FREEDMAN (9/28/05): As far back as the 1960's, according to the local historical society, black students suffered from ''low expectations from teachers'' and a high dropout rate. In the early 1990's, an interracial body calling itself the Robeson Group—in homage to Paul Robeson, the most famous product of black Princeton—mobilized to recruit more black teachers and help elect the first black member to the school board.

Despite such efforts, the achievement gap remained. A tracking system for math separates students in middle school. The high school, while not formally tracked, has such a demand for seats in Advanced Placement classes and honors sections that a rigid hierarchy exists in effect. Guidance counselors find their time consumed by writing recommendation letters for seniors who routinely apply to 10 or more high-end schools.

And until the No Child Left Behind law was enacted there were no concrete consequences for failing to address the resulting disparity. Which may be why a number of black parents here credit the federal law with forcing attention on the underside of public education in Princeton.

Why has the achievement gap remained? From what does the disparity “result?” Easy! There’s a tracking system for middle school math, and the high school has “such a demand for seats in AP classes that a rigid hierarchy exists in effect.” (Presumably, that last murky claim—could Freedman pass an English test?—means that a lower percentage of black students are taking AP classes.) These “explanations” are utterly daft (see below), but they serve the pseudo-liberal imperative. They imply that a lingering racial bias has animated the school system’s decisions. And they imply that there’s a simple way to fix the school’s “uncorrected gap”—to correct the disparity which “results” from these troubling causes.

So there again, you get to see it—the pseudo-liberal impulse in action. As always, there’s a simple solution to the achievement gap—and the gap has “resulted” from “uncorrected” racial bias. The gap has been “left uncorrected,” Freedman says. And he suggests that it’s easy to fix.

But how inane are we willing to be in pursuit of pseudo-liberal fantasies? Freedman’s “explanations” are utterly daft—as “explanations” tend to be when pseudo-liberals start to type about the lives of black children. Go ahead, readers, try to explain it: How does a tracking system in 8th grade math explain a “resulting disparity” in 11th grade English? And does Freedman think that every student should be placed in AP classes? In fact, these “explanations” are simply place-holders in a decades-long pseudo-lib fairy tale. And the fairy tale is always the same. There’s a simple solution to the achievement gap, we always get told. The achievement gap would wither away if school officials in places like Princeton’s were morally fine—fine like me.

It feels very good to type these stories. Indeed, journalists have felt good typing these stories over the course of the past forty years. But if there is a sizable gap at Princeton High, it doesn’t exist because the system has a “track system” for junior high math—and it doesn’t exist because those counselors are typing too many college letters. Just before he gives his absurd “explanations” for the “uncorrected disparity,” Freedman rushes past the real cause—a tragic cause that won’t be as easy to “correct” as Freedman wants you to think:

FREEDMAN: So is the problem with the district, or is the problem with the law?

The answer seems clear to those parents—mostly black, but some white and Hispanic—who have been raising the issue of the achievement gap for years. While the Princeton community includes a slice of black bourgeoisie attached to the university or nearby corporations, most of the African-American population came here a century or more ago to serve as the butlers, maids, cooks and chauffeurs of a university and town with a nearly Southern fondness for segregation. The high school, for instance, did not integrate for nearly 20 years after its founding in 1898, and the elementary schools waited until they were compelled by state law in 1947.

Duh! For hundreds of years, by force of law, our benighted ancestors made it illegal to teach black American children to read. (On the streets of our own Baltimore, Frederick Douglass had to teach himself to read—after his “owner” warned his wife that she must stop giving the brilliant child lessons.) After that, we had a hundred years of separate-but-unequal neglect. The results can be seen all over the country—and, it would seem, at Princeton High. Indeed, Princeton’s gap seems to obtain between two vastly different populations. The school’s deserving white kids are sons and daughters of the upper-middle-class (and of academics). Meanwhile, the school’s deserving black kids have a different class background—they’re the deserving sons and daughters of hard-working cooks and maids. Wherever such populations are found, the achievement gap between them doesn’t likely result from middle-school tracking—and no, it isn’t easy to “correct,” despite the holier-than-thou proclamations of uncaring fiddlers like Freedman.

Let’s recall what that latest new study says about America’s low-income children. ''Young low-income and minority children are more likely to start school without having gained important school readiness skills, such as recognizing letters and counting,” it relates—explaining the deficits faced by kids who come from low-income, low-literacy backgrounds. “By the fourth grade, low-income students read about three grade levels behind non-poor students.” As Jonathan Kozol notes in detail in his new book, these kids are way behind on the day they start school—and they’re three years behind when they hit the fourth grade! This has absolutely nothing to do with consummate trivia like junior high tracking, although people like Freedman will always say different. They just like a good simple tale—a tale that provides a good cry.

Omigod! It feels so good! The people running the Princeton system aren’t as morally fine as we are! When will they “correct” their disparity, Freedman asks—writing tripe from a leafy grove a thousand miles from the action.

OTHER FANTASIES: Other strange fantasies grow on the web regarding that week post-Katrina. We’ll admit it—we were semi-shocked by this claim by Eric Alterman:

ALTERCATION (9/27/05): The Rovian strategy in a nutshell; let the poor and sick folk drown and die; If they make it, screw them with new bankruptcy laws, here. And here’s the media plan: Make the poor people look like raging criminals, here and here.
Really? There was a “media plan” to “make the poor people look like raging criminals?” We clicked on Eric’s first link, and we found this Los Angeles Times report, from yesterday’s paper, written by Susannah Rosenblatt. “Katrina Takes a Toll on Truth, News Accuracy,” the headline said. “Rumors supplanted accurate information and media magnified the problem.”

Did the media bungle Katrina? Rosenblatt starts with a puzzling anecdote—an anecdote that doesn’t seem to maker sense:

ROSENBLATT (9/27/05): Maj. Ed Bush recalled how he stood in the bed of a pickup truck in the days after Hurricane Katrina, struggling to help the crowd outside the Louisiana Superdome separate fact from fiction. Armed only with a megaphone and scant information, he might have been shouting into, well, a hurricane.

The National Guard spokesman's accounts about rescue efforts, water supplies and first aid all but disappeared amid the roar of a 24-hour rumor mill at New Orleans' main evacuation shelter. Then a frenzied media recycled and amplified many of the unverified reports.

"It just morphed into this mythical place where the most unthinkable deeds were being done," Bush said Monday of the Superdome.

His assessment is one of several in recent days to conclude that newspapers and television exaggerated criminal behavior in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, particularly at the overcrowded Superdome and Convention Center.

But if Major Bush was working at the Superdome, how did he know what the media were reporting? How would he know if newspapers and television “exaggerated criminal behavior in the wake of Katrina?” There might be an answer to that question, but by the time Rosenblatt starts naming her media villains, it’s her own logic that starts going down. If you want to see a weird analysis, just wade through this list:
ROSENBLATT (9/27/05): Hyperbolic reporting spread through much of the media.

Fox News, a day before the major evacuation of the Superdome began, issued an "alert" as talk show host Alan Colmes reiterated reports of "robberies, rapes, carjackings, riots and murder. Violent gangs are roaming the streets at night, hidden by the cover of darkness."

The Los Angeles Times adopted a breathless tone the next day in its lead news story, reporting that National Guard troops "took positions on rooftops, scanning for snipers and armed mobs as seething crowds of refugees milled below, desperate to flee. Gunfire crackled in the distance."

The New York Times repeated some of the reports of violence and unrest, but the newspaper usually was more careful to note that the information could not be verified.

The tabloid Ottawa Sun reported unverified accounts of "a man seeking help gunned down by a National Guard soldier" and "a young man run down and then shot by a New Orleans police officer.”

How much “hyperbolic reporting” was there? By her fourth example, Rosenblatt is forced to slam a Canadian tabloid. And note the third (apparent) complaint one more time—just drink in this logic:
ROSENBLATT (9/27/05): The New York Times repeated some of the reports of violence and unrest, but the newspaper usually was more careful to note that the information could not be verified.
The New York Times “reported some of the reports of violence?” Rosenblatt doesn’t even bother to claim that the Times printed false reports. Instead, she almost seems to imply that it was wrong to print any reports of violence. And this, remember, is number three in her list of media bad guys.

How hard are pseudo-liberals now working to clean up the New Orleans reports? (Because yes, there was some violence in New Orleans.) Let’s recall Rosenblatt’s weird critique of her own paper, the Los Angeles Times:

ROSENBLATT (9/27/05): The Los Angeles Times adopted a breathless tone the next day in its lead news story, reporting that National Guard troops "took positions on rooftops, scanning for snipers and armed mobs as seething crowds of refugees milled below, desperate to flee. Gunfire crackled in the distance."
Rosenblatt complains about the tone—but never asserts that the newspaper’s statements weren’t true. Indeed, here is the fuller lead of that troubling Times report, penned by Ellen Barry:
BARRY (9/2/05): The rushed mobilization of federal troops to the storm-desolated Gulf Coast was outpaced Thursday by New Orleans' rapid descent into chaos. Sniper fire threatened hospital evacuations and a mass bus caravan to Texas, corpses were found outside the city's decaying convention center and weakened refugees collapsed amid enraged crowds on city streets.

At nightfall, heavily armed police and National Guard troops took positions on rooftops, scanning for snipers and armed mobs as seething crowds of refugees milled below, desperate to flee. Gunfire crackled in the distance.

New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin implored federal officials for immediate aid. "This is a desperate SOS," Nagin said.

About 5,000 people filled the city's convention center and the trash-strewn streets outside on a city plaza where tourists once strolled. Outside the dank, cavernous hall, where temperatures soared and lights winked out, seven corpses lay sprawled, covered by blankets. Other deaths were reported nearby, and there was an increasing number of accounts of rapes and beatings, city officials said.

What part of that is actually wrong? Which part of that should have been dumped? Rosenblatt doesn’t say. For example, was it wrong for Barry to report that “sniper fire threatened hospital evacuations?” Later in her story she provided more detail, quoting a pair of named sources:
BARRY (9/2/05): In the flood-swept city center, another distant gunman hidden in a high-rise terrorized doctors and patients at Charity Hospital as staff worked feverishly to evacuate critically ill patients.

"Sniper! Sniper! Sniper!" nurses screamed as shots drove them back into Charity's emergency room.

Respiratory therapist Blake Bergeron was among staffers and National Guard troops who were forced to retreat when their truck was fired at after 11 a.m. He heard two or three shots and heard bullets ping into the floodwaters. "The soldiers shouted for us to get down," he said.

Later, hoping the coast was clear, medical teams again tried to carry patients outside. But more bursts sent doctors scurrying in retreat. Inside, nurses used bellows-like oxygen bags instead of mechanical ventilators to provide oxygen to patients too ill to breathe on their own. At nightfall, several seriously ill patients were evacuated by boat. But the boats soon returned, forced to retreat because promised rescue vehicles were not there to meet them.

By then, several of the sickest patients had died, said Dr. Ruth Bergeron. "They just brought a dead body down from the third floor," she said grimly.

Was it wrong for Barry to report that—to highlight this in paragraph 1? And oh yes—was this factually wrong? Writing from a thousand miles away, Rosenblatt doesn’t say. And was it wrong for Barry to report this, just before she discussed the snipers at Charity Hoispital?
BARRY (9/2/05): Louisiana National Guard soldiers chased refugees and stragglers away from the intersection of Loyola Avenue and Girod Street in the heart of New Orleans. An unseen sniper holed up in a nearby building fired sporadically at soldiers and pedestrians.

"We think he's in one of those high-rises," Sgt. Matthew Gautreau said, nodding over his shoulder. "He's been shooting all morning.”

Was it wrong for Barry to report that violence? Is Rosenblatt saying it didn’t happen? Remember, Barry’s report in number two in Rosenblatt’s list of major offenders—but what is supposed to be wrong with the story? Rosenblatt complains about the tone—but beyond that, she just doesn’t say.

But then, Rosenblatt’s report is almost wholly absurd—a tribute to the wide revival of the pseudo-liberal impulse. Try to believe the sheer absurdity of this early passage, in which she piggy-backs on that earlier, semi-puzzling report in the New Orleans Times-Picayune:

ROSENBLATT (9/27/05): The New Orleans Times-Picayune on Monday described inflated body counts, unverified "rapes," and unconfirmed sniper attacks as among examples of "scores of myths about the dome and Convention Center treated as fact by evacuees, the media and even some of New Orleans' top officials."

Indeed, Mayor C. Ray Nagin told a national television audience on "Oprah" three weeks ago of people "in that frickin' Superdome for five days watching dead bodies, watching hooligans killing people, raping people."

Journalists and officials who have reviewed the Katrina disaster blamed the inaccurate reporting in large measure on the breakdown of telephone service, which prevented dissemination of accurate reports to those most in need of the information. Race may have also played a factor.

Remember, Alterman (and many others) are treating Rosenblatt’s report as a slam on the way “the media” overstated. But what example do we meet here? We see the way a politician, Ray Nagin, described the alleged violence. But how do Mayor Nagin’s statements implicate the media in misconduct? Was Oprah supposed to do something here? Oprah hadn’t been in the Dome—and Nagin had. What was she supposed to say?

To Alterman, from whom we have learned a great deal over the years, this report by Rosenblatt somehow shows that there was a “media plan” to “make the poor people look like raging criminals.” In fact, Rosenblatt’s report provides little evidence of media misconduct, and often seems to make little sense—except as the latest example of the resurgent pesudo-liberal impulse. Pseudo-libs are busy suggesting that nothing much happened in New Orleans. We’d suggest they call the Bergerons and see what they think about that.

What was wrong with the media reports? The two pieces to which Alterman links are rather hazy on this matter. A “media plan” to trash poor people? Why are we making such claims?

WHY: Why are liberals writing such odd reports? Yesterday, a well-intentioned e-mailer gave us the outline of the answer:

E-MAIL: I believe that you read Digby and I was wondering if you saw his piece on the exaggerated accounts of violence in New Orleans. I believe you wrote a post a while back stating that race was not a proven factor and that the accounts from the mayor and the police chief proved that there was violence. They are now retracting those statements. I know neither the left or right should make up story lines and facts but don't you think that we were right to be skeptical about these stories that fed the myth of the scary black man? Will you write a follow-up piece about what actually happened?
We did see the Digby piece—we’ve been following him closely on the racial aspects of New Orleans—and, although we agree with his sense that race is involved in all our politics, we tend to disagree with his instincts and reactions to that fact. But the e-mailer’s concern is obvious. She fears that “the exaggerated accounts of violence in New Orleans” have “fed the myth of the scary black man.”

Yesterday, Digby went further. To Digby—whose work in this area we follow closely—it still seems to be 1741; he suggests that “the collective lizard brain of America” reacted irrationally to the reports of “the black mob” in New Orleans. But he quotes extensively from the Times-Picayune report—a report that is only slightly less irrational than Rosenblatt’s piece when it comes to media misstatements—and he fails to explain just who it was who should have proceeded more boldly in the face of media reports about violence in New Orleans.

Did America’s “lizard brain” respond in racist ways to reports of violence? In the last few weeks, America’s lizard brain has showered relief on the deserving flood victims. It’s bad on the merits—and amazingly bad politics—when liberals need to keep insisting, in the absence of powerful evidence, that everyone else except them is a racist. Was it irrational for relief workers to proceed with caution? That’s easy to say from half a world away. But we wonder what the Bergerons would say, since they were the ones facing gunfire.

These two reports, in the Times and the Times-Picayune, reason quite poorly about this alleged problem. What was wrong with Barry’s report? Rosenblatt doesn’t bother to say. But the pseudo-liberal heart seems to be swelling, after a long dormant period—and it’s providing the kinds of odd reports that will harm progressive interests in the end.

With regret, we’ll be away until Tuesday. These matters deserve full discussion. By the way, we follow Digby’s work on race with great interest—and we’ll suggest that you follow it too.

GUPTA STIRRED THE LIZARD BRAIN TOO: CNN’s Sanjay Gupta also pretended there was violence in New Orleans. On September 1, he reported on the non-existent violence that wasn’t occurring at Charity Hospital:

BLITZER (9/1/05): Dr. Sanjay Gupta, our CNN medical correspondent, is joining us now as well with information about one of the major hospitals in New Orleans and what's going on there. Sanjay, what are you hearing?

GUPTA: Really remarkable story, Wolf, a story that you don't anticipate with hospitals—sniper fire at Charity Hospital in downtown New Orleans as they were trying to evacuate some of the most critically ill patients there.

We have been hearing about these evacuations for some time now. They were trying specifically to evacuate those patients who were in intensive care units, in need of a ventilator or in need of dialysis. They're evacuating these patients into these amphibious vehicles that are parked in front of the hospital.

One of the doctors, Dr. Tyler Curiel, one of the doctors at Charity Hospital, was actually physically helping evacuate the patients himself. Two vehicles, the back vehicle, as they started to drive off, came under fire. They were able to get all but one of the patients out of the hospital. But some significant fire was exchanged, as there were armed guards in the amphibious vehicles as well.

I asked the doctor, well, who was doing this? Why were they doing that? Do they have any idea? Really no idea as to why they were being fired upon, what was specifically being done there. But a person in a white shirt from a high building close to Charity Hospital started firing upon those two vehicles as they were trying to evacuate these patients.

Blitzer continued. “What you're hearing now is that, at Charity Hospital, one of the major medical facilities in New Orleans, that people have been trying to leave, but they have had to stop leaving because of sniper fire. Is that right?” Inexcusably, Gupta stirred the lizards again:
GUPTA: That is absolutely correct...This hospital overflowing, as the doctors were describing it to me, under I guess the conditions we have all been hearing about now for a couple of days—lots of water in the hallways, poor electricity, poor resources overall. But now add on this, Wolf, actually taking fire as they're trying to move some of the patients. In this case, they were trying to move them down to Tulane University Hospital. Again, they were able to get this particular group of patients out—all but one of them at least—but are very concerned. And one of the comments made to me was, there was absolutely no protection, except for the armed guards in these amphibious vehicles. There was no military presence at all, as they were trying to evacuate these patients. These doctors called me very concerned about that, Wolf.

BLITZER: These are your colleagues, your medical professional colleagues, Sanjay. And what you're hearing from them, I just want to make sure we're precise now, is that they don't see any police, law enforcement, any National Guard or military presence that can protect them at Charity Hospital? Is that right?

GUPTA: They were very clear with me on this point, Wolf. They said they looked around. They were obviously frightened for their lives as they were taking fire. Dr. Ruth Bergeron specifically, who I just got off the phone with, said that specifically was no—no presence, no protective presence, except for the armed guards that were in the amphibious vehicles, the private armed guards in those vehicles, but no U.S. military presence.

Should Dr. Bergeron have feared for her life? Not according to the New Liberal Thinking! According to the New Liberal Thinking, she should have simply sucked it up so the lizards wouldn’t stir! It’s hard to overstate how absurd this is on the merits—and how bad it is, as a matter of politics, when liberals start rewriting three-week-old history so that the lizards won’t stir.

Final note: Chris Rock’s entire act is based on the premise that people can distinguish between the masses of normal, decent African-Americans and the community’s annoying criminals. But liberals still believe that the people are lizards, and they’re busy rewriting history to make sure that their brains never stir.

GONZO LOGIC: Note the way the Times-Picayune report starts:

THEVENOT: After five days managing near riots, medical horrors and unspeakable living conditions inside the Superdome, Louisiana National Guard Col. Thomas Beron prepared to hand over the dead to representatives of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Following days of internationally reported murders, rapes and gang violence inside the stadium, the doctor from FEMA—Beron doesn't remember his name—came prepared for a grisly scene: He brought a refrigerated 18-wheeler and three doctors to process bodies.

"I've got a report of 200 bodies in the Dome," Beron recalled the doctor saying.

The real total?

Six, Beron said.

It makes a great story—instead of 200, it was really just six! But what does it mean if a single (unnamed) FEMA doctor had somehow heard a bogus report? Thevenot can’t even name the doctor is, let alone find out how he got the (alleged) bad number. Meanwhile, what does this have to do with the media? Apparently nothing, but the big number—200—made this an irresistible anecdote.

Any chance that this is the very kind of exaggerated, unconfirmed story we’re now pretending to be debunking? Thevenot can’t confirm that this actually happened, and its relevance to the media isn’t apparent. But so what? He loved the big number involved—and pseudo-libs have rushed to embrace it. Yes, this story is shaky and unconfirmed. But it’s unconfirmed in a way that we like.