GUESS WHOS DOING MUCH BETTER! Would it kill education writers to flesh out their gloomy tales? // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, OCTOBER 16, 2009
Guess whos doing much better: In yesterdays New York Times, Sam Dillon reviewed the new math scores from the National Assessment of Education Progress (the NAEP)math scores from 2009, which were released this week (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/15/09). As his principal focus, Dillon said that growth in nationwide math scores has slowed since the start of No Child Left Behind. Heres the start of Dillons report:
This is a reasonable observationthough that sluggish six-year trend will lead to remarkable achievement gains if it continues in the decades to come. That said, gains in math scores have been slower in the six years since NCLB (from 2003 through 2009) than in the seven years before that (from 1996 through 2003). Before we join Dillon in puzzling about the reason, lets note a bit more of the unfortunate foolishness found in Dillons piecefoolishness which isnt always his doing. (To review the new NAEP scores, click here.)
The foolishness starts in his second paragraph (see above). As Dillon quite correctly notes, the No Child Left Behind law requires schools to bring 100 percent of students to reading and math proficiency by 2014. The utter foolishness of this requirement has always beggared the imagination. Can Congress simply require all children to be proficient by some future date? Except as a motivational tool, the notion is utterly ludicrousespecially in a system where proficiency levels are established by subjective assessment. (Gerald Bracey has long argued that NAEPs proficiency levels are set arbitrarily high.)
This requirement comes right out of the comic tradition of Chaplins strutting Great Dictator. But some experts, even sensible experts, will act as if the requirement makes sense. So we see when Dillon goes on to quote Chester Finn:
But then, the goal was always absurd, as was the notion that Congress could set a deadline for compliance. Meanwhile, the trend has been (relatively) flat for two years; but does that mean that overall progress has stopped? In fact, eighth-grade math scores did go up from 2007 to 2009, by two points on the NAEP raw score scale. But so what? The conventional gloom-and-doomism of education journalism is reflected in Dillons instant use of Finns quote, in which Finn makes a weirdly inaccurate statement. To wit:
If scores go up two points in two years, does that mean theyre going nowhere important? In fact, if scores go up ten points in ten years, that would mean that eighth graders were scoring roughly one grade level above their peers from a decade before. (Were applying the conventional ten points equals one school year rule of thumb which Dillon uses in his piecewhen it helps him produce a gloomy assessment.) What would make such a gain seem unimportantexcept the need for shrieking alarmism?
For the record, two years is a short amount of time. From 2007 through 2009, fourth grade math scores stayed the same; eighth grade scores went up two points. Of course, youd like to see larger gainsbut two years is a short chunk of time. Ten years from now, these scores may seem like a statistical blip. Theres no way to know at present.
And by the way:
What has actually happened to math scores in the six years since No Child Left Behind took effect? (From 2003 to 2009?) In fourth grade, black kids scores have gone up six points; Hispanic kids have gone up five points. In eighth grade, the gains are larger. Black kids scores have gone up nine points, Hispanic kids have gone up seven. If ten points equals one school year, those are extremely strong score gains. But under prevailing laws of education writing, that rule of thumb can only be used to produce gloomy assessments! Pseudo-liberals refuse to tell you that black and Hispanic kids just keep doing better in math. Since they want you to admire their own greatness in matters of race, they will only use that rule of thumb to hand you gloomy assessments like thisassessments which stress their own heroic longing for racial justice:
Those achievement gaps are huge, of course, if we trust Dillons rule of thumb. (32 points represents about three years.) But two years is a short span of time. It isnt clear what lessons we can draw from this narrow comparison.
As weve noted, blacks kids and Hispanic kids scored better in math this year than their peers in 2003. But darn it! White kids keep scoring better too, thus keeping those achievement gaps in place. (The gaps were reduced in eighth grade during that period. The black-white gap was reduced by four points.) Its typical of upscale education reporting to say that the gaps remain daunting (which is certainly true), without saying that all three major groupsincluding black kids and Hispanic kidsare scoring substantially better over the time span at issue.
Back to Dillons basic premise: Why has overall progress seemed to slow in the years since No Child Left Behind? In this passage, he tries to puzzle it out:
In fact, the slowing of growth has been less than gigantic. But why has growth slowed at all? After attributing a murky paraphrase to Schneidera paraphrase he refuses to clarifyDillon suggests that the race to the bottom may be the cause. That is always possible, of course. But well offer another idea.
In fact, there has been massive gain in minority scores since NAEP began testing in 1969. There have also been large reductions in the massive achievement gaps which obtained at that time. Might we suggest a possible explanation? In many cases, urban school systems were systems in name only during those earlier years. When we taught in the Baltimore schools (starting in 1969), there was nothing resembling a real curriculumcertainly not for kids who were years behind grade leveland there was very little oversight of individual teachers. When we read Herbert Kohls famous account of his own teaching years in Harlem in the 1960s (36 Children), we see little sign that he was being supervised either. He says the curriculum stunkand he threw it away. There is little sign that anyone noticed, reacted or cared.
In short, there was vast mismanagement in those days. It was waiting to be addressed. By now, much of the easiest fruit has likely been picked. Something similar may explain the situation Dillon describes in this passage:
As Dillon notes, No Child Left Behind was enacted at least ten years into the reign of the standards and accountability movement. We have often been critical of that movements limited focus. But whatever benefits that movement did have to offer, it may be that the easiest fruit had already been picked by 2002 or 2003, when NCLBs directives began affecting schools.
That said, blacks kids and Hispanic kids did score better in math in 2009, as compared to their peers in 2003. Black kids scored nine points better at the eighth grade level! If Dillons rule of thumb is valid, those kids are almost one full year ahead of their peers from 2003. (Hispanic eighth-graders are up seven points.)
That would be massive progress.
We dont know why it hurts upper-end writers to share such important facts with the public. If NAEP scores (and that rule of thumb) can be believed, black kids are doing much better in math. Would it kill the New York Times to tattle about this fact?
Those miserable gaps are part of the story. So are those gains in math scores.
PART 4BUT ITS JUST OPINION: The Fox News Channel pushed back at Anita Dunnafter she pushed back at them (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/15/09). But its just opinion, they seemed to be saying, explaining away a great deal of what happens on their network.
That is an utterly hapless rebuttal. But some major journalists seemed to be buying it. And it resembles the rebuttal we often hear from our comediansand from Rush Limbaugh types:
But its just comedy, the jokesters will say. But Im just an entertainer, Rush will typically say when he gets caught in misstatement.
Sorry. Misinformation gets spread by opinion and jokes. Skewed focus gets spread in those ways too. Well finish our series on Monday. In the meantime:
Smith says the magic word: We had to chuckle at something Stephen A. Smith said on Wednesday nights Anderson Cooper. On his web site, Smith had attributed a bogus statement to Limbaugha statement El Rushbo hadnt said.
On Wednesday, Cooper mentioned this fact. In lieu of making a simple retraction, Smith said a magic word. Top pundits know how to use it:
See how it works? If you plan to repeat a charge thats untrue, you just have to throw in reportedly!
We advised you about this magic word many moons ago. Reportedly is an all-purpose word that lets a writer repeat any tale that has ever been said. So we advised you in 2003, discussing the way the press corps had gossiped, minced and clowned for a full month about Naomi Wolf (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/7/03).
For a real-time comment on this same topic, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/2/99. Heres what Richard Cohen had typed in that mornings Post, as the press corps disastrous Month of Wolf was getting started:
To Cohen, it was critical that Wolf had reportedly advised Gore to wear more earth tones.
And its trueWolf had reportedly done that! She just hadnt done that in fact.
For children, please and thank you are magic words. For pundits, the magic word is reportedly. Wednesday night, the analysts shared a good solid laugh as Smith shared some shop talk with Cooper.
But it was only a joke: From that same column by Cohen: Who else is on the payroll, AlRichard Simmons?
Cohen thus told a wonderful joke. Bush ended up in the White House.