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TAKE THE WAKE COUNTY CHALLENGE! Kevin Drum reviewed Bazelon’s work. Today, we offer a challenge: // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, JULY 25, 2008

A CHANGE IN THE WEATHER: Elisabeth Bumiller always seems like a pleasant person when we see her on TV. But really, her work today is just awful. She starts her “Political Memo” with silly snark aimed at McCain—a tone she largely maintains to the end. Along the way, she produces hapless accounts of the current dispute about the surge, and about the way this week’s oil spill interacts with McCain’s offshore drilling proposal. Overall, she snarks at McCain. But before she’s done, she bungles and fuzzes in ways that cut against both contenders.

During Campaign 2004, Bumiller wrote a weekly series of softball profiles of Candidate Bush. (Her gruesome “White House Letters.”) This time around, she may be rooting the other way. And then, good God! Here’s Jeff Zeleny, writing about Obama:

ZELENY (7/25/08): The setting of the speech, as well as the size of the crowd, seemed to place Mr. Obama among a litany of American leaders who have stood before him, even though he is simply a first-term United States senator.

Except as an attempt at reverential cheerleading, that sentence is so awful that it defies comprehension.

Sniffing the zeitgeist about sixteen years later, some liberals seem to be implying these days that the press corps is in the bag for McCain. We see a much more varied picture. This morning, Howard Kurtz quotes Terence Smith. Can this possibly be what he said?

KURTZ (7/25/08): Some journalists defend the coverage as a matter of marketing: Obama is hot, McCain is not.

"The Obama phenomenon is so much the better story—an obscure African American senator from Illinois, little known to most Americans two years ago, emerges as very probably the next president," says Terence Smith, a former correspondent for CBS and PBS. "That is a fantastic story. Of course it's going to get two or three times the space and attention and airtime of John McCain, who, while he may be a very appealing semi-maverick on his bus, is a much more conventional candidate."

Can that possibly be what he said?

In our view, the dumbness of this year’s general-election coverage has been its defining feature. By now, the corps has perfected the flight from substance, even as we look ahead to Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, global warming, health care, energy restructuring. (Did Al Gore say something last week? Not in the world of the “press corps.”) But we’d have to say we see different courtesies being extended to the two candidates. Some elements that hated the Clintons and Gore are plainly playing on Obama’s side. (Chris Matthews would be an obvious example.) That doesn’t mean that they’ll trash McCain, or even cover him intelligently. It means that the balance of preferences and courtesies are quite different than they’ve been in the past.

Four years ago, Bumiller’s somnolent, slow-motion softballs were balanced by nothing at all in the Times. This morning, she starts with snark aimed at McCain—and pretty much snarks her way to the end. And by the way, darlings: How perfectly silly it is to discuss the cost of a gallon of milk! The Dalai Lama is so much more central! This silly gang never changes its spots. It only adjusts who it roots for.

TAKE THE WAKE COUNTY CHALLENGE: We’d planned to wait until next week to discuss Emily Bazelon’s piece in detail (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/24/08). But yesterday, a bit of good news: Kevin Drum addressed the Bazelon piece too. Now, for a bit of bad news: In our view, Kevin challenged the lesser of the article’s two major flaws, but left its larger flaw intact. Because Kevin is a sober, sensible, highly capable analyst, we thought the time had come to act! And so, today, we ask Kevin Drum: Please take the Wake County challenge!

We’ll extend this suggestion to a few others over the weekend, including Bazelon herself. (For Bazelon’s piece, just click here.)

First, let’s get clear on what Bazelon said in her high-profile report—and let’s note the flaw Kevin cited. In this, the opening to his post, he sketches Bazelon’s principal claim—and he accepts its accuracy. For the record, Kevin refers to yesterday’s HOWLER, not to a private communique:

DRUM (7/24/08): Bob Somerby reminds me today to comment on Emily Bazelon’s article about school integration in the New York Times magazine. It's basically a review of many decades of research showing that the most important way to improve school performance is to eliminate high concentrations of poverty: other things equal, it turns out that academic achievement for all races shows dramatic gains when the proportion of low-income students in a school falls below 50 percent or, even better, 40 percent. This finding, says UCLA education professor Gary Orfield, is "one of the most consistent findings in research on education."

Fine.

According to Kevin, Bazelon says that “academic achievement for all races shows dramatic gains when the proportion of low-income students in a school falls below 50 percent.” That isn’t a perfect account of what Bazelon says, but it comes fairly close. (As near we can tell, Bazelon only claims “dramatic gains” for low-income students.) Plainly, Kevin accepts this principal claim—though he raises a different complaint about Bazelon’s piece.

Kevin’s complaint? Due to simple demographics, big urban systems can’t integrate classrooms in the manner prescribed; school systems full of low-income kids can’t create classrooms where middle-class kids are in the majority. As Kevin notes, Bazelon mentions this problem, but only in passing; like Kevin, we thought this was a flaw with her article. (Why produce such a high-profile piece about a “solution” which can’t be implemented?) But in our mind, that was the lesser flaw in Bazelon’s piece. The greater flaw involves her treatment of the claim which Kevin accepts.

Is it true? Does “academic achievement for all races show dramatic gains when the proportion of low-income students in a school falls below 50 percent?” As he continues, Kevin cites one of Bazelon’s major pieces of evidence—those famous test scores from Wake County, North Carolina (Raleigh and environs). As Kevin notes, these test scores now stand as a holy grail. They’re endlessly, cheerfully flogged:

DRUM: There's nothing wrong with writing about the efforts of school districts (most famously, Wake County, NC) to integrate their schools and improve performance. But the elephant in the room is that by far the biggest problem with poverty-stricken schools is in big cities, and in big cities there's simply no way to do this...

And yet, we get endless stories about Wake County (I've read at least three or four just in the past couple of years) with virtually no acknowledgment that even if class-based integration works, it's a small-scale solution.

We’ll have to disagree with Kevin’s first judgment. In fact, there is something wrong with writing about Wake County—if the data keep getting misrepresented. And it seems to us that Bazelon, like many before her, has done this again. Quite badly.

Wake County is the nation’s nineteenth largest school system, Bazelon says. But did Wake County produce “dramatic gains” in academic achievement when it integrated its classrooms by social class? You’d surely think so from Bazelon’s piece. What follows is her basic presentation about Wake County. This is also one of her principal claims on behalf of her report’s major premise:

BAZELON (7/20/08): Wake County adopted class-based integration with the hard-nosed goal of raising test scores. The strategy was simple: no poor schools, no bad schools. And indeed, the district has posted striking improvements in the test scores of black and low-income students: in 1995, only 40 percent of the black students in Wake County in the third through eighth grades scored at grade level in state reading tests; by last year, the rate had almost doubled [sic], to 82.5 percent. Statewide scores for black students also got better over the same time period, but not by as much. Wake County's numbers improve as students get older: 92 percent of all eighth graders read at or above grade level, including about 85 percent of black students and about 80 percent of low-income students.

Impressive—if plainly illogical. According to Bazelon, only 40 percent of Wake County’s black students (grades 3-8) passed state reading tests in 1995. By 2007, “the rate had almost doubled, to 82.5 percent,” she writes, with striking illogic. In fact, if Bazelon’s data are accurate, the rate has plainly more than doubled. But Bazelon’s data don’t seem to be accurate. And even if her data turn out to be right, her lack of sophistication about test scores is quite plainly showing. Even if her data are accurate, these apparent “score gains” aren’t likely all that important—and they don’t seem to stand as a ringing endorsement of Wake County’s unique procedures.

Are Bazelon’s basic data right? Not according to North Carolina’s official web site, though it’s possible that conflicting sets of data could be floating around for some reason. At this link (it’s hard to find within the state education site), the state provides a useful tool for gathering data about passing rates on the state’s reading and math tests. Here are the passing rates for Wake County’s black students, according to this official state site:

Black students passing rate, reading tests, grades 3-8, Wake County only:
1995: 51.6 percent
2007: 82.8 percent

Obviously, that’s still a large gain in the passing rate. According to the state’s official web site, the passing rate has in fact “almost doubled” in the twelve years in question. In 1995, 51.6 percent of Wake County’s black students passed the state reading test (grades 3-8). By 2007, the passing rate was much higher; it now stood at 82.8 percent.

Even after replacing Bazelon’s data, these data seem to present a “striking” testimonial to Wake County’s procedures. But, in fact, they just don’t.
Why is Bazelon’s excitement misplaced? Because of the disclaimer she smuggled into her vastly misleading presentation. “Statewide scores for black students also got better over the same time period, but not by as much,” she cleverly notes—failing to say that the statewide change in passing rate virtually matches that of Wake County. In fact, the score gains recorded by Wake County’s black kids were essentially matched all over the state:

Black students passing rate, reading tests, grades 3-8, North Carolina statewide:
1995: 47.4 percent
2007: 78.8 percent

Among black students, Wake County was slightly outperforming the state in 1995—and it was slightly outperforming the state in 2007. The change in passing rate statewide is virtually identical to that in Wake County. In the state as a whole—as in Wake County—the passing rate among black kids was 31 points higher by 2007. That looks like good news (though it probably isn’t). But it has nothing to do with Wake County.

To state the blindingly obvious: Whatever caused that gain in the statewide passing rate, it wasn’t the class-based integration plan, which was in effect in Wake County only. Unless something is grossly wrong with the state’s official data, the claim that Wake County’s plan produced those “striking improvements” seems to be utterly bogus. And yet, as Kevin noted, the miracle gains of the Wake County plan are endlessly dragged out for flogging, as Bazelon did in Sunday’s Times. Once again, readers were told that the Wake County plan produced “striking improvements.” The claim simply seems to be false.

Bottom line: If we use the state’s official data, there is no apparent reason to think that Wake County’s plan has produced “striking improvements” (“impressive gains”) among black students, since those very same score gains have occurred all over the state. Our own guess would involve a less happy idea: We’d start by wondering if the state’s reading tests have simply gotten easier over the years, thereby driving up passing rates statewide, not just in Wake County. And no, we aren’t the first to raise this obvious possibility. Indeed, even as passing rates have soared on North Carolina’s state-run testing program, North Carolina students have registered little progress on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the well-known “gold standard” of national testing (details below). This fact has been noted again and again. People like Bazelon ignore it.

Below, we show you the passing rates on the state reading tests for black students in a range of years. (Again, these are the state’s official data.) Wake County’s progress plainly tracks that in the state as a whole. In both jurisdictions, we see modest progress from 1994 through 1997; then, in 1998, we see the first significant, single-year bump in the passing rate. In all these years, Wake County closely tracks the state as a whole. Whatever is driving these changes in scores, it looks like a statewide phenomenon:

Passing rate, North Carolina black students, reading, grades 3-8:
1994: 45.6 percent
1995: 47.4
1996: 47.9
1997: 49.3
1998: 55.1
1999: 57.9
2000: 58.8
2007: 78.8

Passing rate, Wake County black students, reading, grades 3-8:
1994: 49.1 percent
1995: 51.6
1996: 51.7
1997: 51.9
1998: 57.5
1999: 60.8
2000: 62.1
2007: 82.8

By the way, the rest of Bazelon’s presentation is bogus too. “Wake County's numbers improve as students get older,” she writes, cheerleading heartily; “92 percent of all eighth graders read at or above grade level, including about 85 percent of black students and about 80 percent of low-income students.” Sorry—those are statewide phenomena too. Here are the corresponding statewide data for eighth-grade students in reading:

Passing rate, North Carolina students, reading, grade 8, 2007:
All students: 89.8
Black students: 82.2
Low-income students: 82.7

Bazelon tub-thumps for Wake County’s procedures. But the phenomena she observes in Wake County are, once again, with minor variation, observed for the state as a whole. In North Carolina as a whole, the passing rate is a bit higher in the eighth grade; this is not some sort of Wake County phenomenon.

But readers, does it even matter what’s true and what’s false? With amazing regularity, truth and falsehood haven’t seemed to matter much when it comes to the lives of poor children. Big news orgs have pimped pleasing bull-roar for decades; unless something is grossly wrong with North Carolina’s official data, Bazelon continued the practice last Sunday. Does this sort of thing ever stop? Or are low-income children really just toys—play-things for hapless elites?

Kevin is a very good analyst—and so, today, we officially ask him to take the Wake County challenge. Clearly, passing rates among black kids have changed a great deal in North Carolina. But is there any reason to attribute this change to procedures followed in Wake County, since the gains in question have occurred statewide? We think it’s time for major liberals to address the flaw in the Wake County story—a story which is endlessly flogged, as Kevin correctly noted.

Or is this all a hoax, a scam? Do black kids exist to be lied about? After decades of work of this type, the answer is far from clear.

The problem: When we pretend we’ve found a solution, the search for real solutions stops.

The question: Are those North Carolina score gains real? Or are they the product of easier tests?

Question for those who take the Wake County challenge: Since Wake County’s score gains are observed statewide, can they sensibly be attributed to Wake County’s particular programs?

Final question: Do you really believe what Bazelon says? Do you believe that “92 percent of all eighth graders [in North Carolina] read at or above grade level?” If you believe that, we have a nice piece of Mars-front property to sell you. History has come to an end if that claim turns out to be true.

One more final question: As noted yesterday, the Times describes Bazelon as “a senior editor at Slate who writes frequently about legal issues.” Our question: Why do we assign legal writers to puzzle out educational topics? In the way we’ve described—and in many others—Bazelon’s piece is very weak work. We see no sign that Bazelon was suitable for this topic. (Similarly, we don’t write about nuclear physics, as you may have noticed.)

About the data: Once again: We’re using the official data from the state’s official web site. We’ll be happy to see these data corrected or refined in any way that’s appropriate. Once again, we don’t know where Bazelon got that “40 percent” figure for 1995. (Her data about Wake County’s eighth-grade passing rates match those on the state’s web site.) This weekend, we’ll try to find out—and we’ll ask a few other libs to take the Wake County challenge.

Does it matter what’s true and what’s false? We’re not sure what the answer might be. Do low-income children matter?