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DEFINING EXPERTISE DOWN! “Educational experts” keep conning the Times about Wake County’s score gains: // link // print // previous // next //
MONDAY, JULY 28, 2008

DEMONS DON’T DIE: We strongly recommend this excellent piece by the excellent team of Alterman/Zornick; the lads discuss the press corps’ lazy reaction to Al Gore’s recent energy proposal. As we’ve said, the press has almost perfected the art of avoiding all discussions of substance—and we’re glad to see these two liberal scribes complaining about this practice. For unknown reasons, some liberals even praised Tom Brokaw’s session with Gore on the July 20 Meet the Press; we were struck by how much time Brokaw wasted on pointless, ancillary matters. And of course, when Brokaw raised the following point about the deeply vile Hillary Clinton, he revived the ancestral theme which has driven so much work at his network—including a good deal of his own work during Campaign 2000:

BROKAW (7/20/08): Did Hillary Clinton reset this debate when she said there should be a summer holiday on the federal gas tax?

GORE: Well, I, I, I don't want to get into a primary battle that I successfully avoided getting into while it was going on.

BROKAW: That's not a primary battle. She's speaking to an issue that you feel very strongly on.

GORE: I didn't—I disagreed with those who wanted a so-called gas tax holiday. And I think taking it from that to sort of the whole—

BROKAW: Was it irresponsible on her part, do you think, at this time?

GORE: I'm not going to label, I'm not going to label friends of mine irresponsible. I think that particular proposal wasn't one I agreed with, was in response to what people are feeling with gasoline prices. And we've got to respond to the gasoline price increase. But here's the point, Tom. The people of this country are ready for bolder, more dramatic answers. The real way to bring gasoline prices down is not by going back to, to try more of the same things that have not worked in the past, but, but to say, "Wait a minute, now's time--now is the time for really dramatic shift over to renewable energy.”

BROKAW: But that gets back to what I was saying earlier. Is it time for American politicians, Republicans and Democrats and independents alike, to say to the American people, "We're going to have to go through some pain here?

Truly, that was astounding. Whatever one thinks of Clinton’s proposal, it was hardly worth discussing here—killing time that could have gone to a more seminal topic. Meanwhile, a guy named McCain proposed that tax holiday too—and he’s still running for president! But Gore was asked if Clinton was “irresponsible.” That other name didn’t come up.

Truly, that was remarkable. And yes, it was a perfect example of the press corps’ work in much of the past sixteen years.

Brokaw wasted a lot of time—some of it on NBC’s treasured demonology. But then, these viral matters never really go away—and they’re never discussed honestly within the mainstream press corps. Consider one part of Eric Boehlert’s recent profile of the AP’s Ron Fournier.

Boehlert batted Fournier around for his past treatment of Democrats. But our analysts lustily cheered when Boehlert fact-checked a recent statement by the AP honcho. Al Gore never said he invented the Internet, Fournier grandly said, a few months ago. But uh-oh! Boehlert went back and recorded the things Fournier had said when it mattered:

BOEHLERT (7/22/08): Oh, and this was great. Warning Clinton during the primaries about the dangers of having a candidate's character questioned by the press, Fournier noted that Al Gore got unfairly tagged during the 2000 presidential campaign for having claimed to have invented the Internet. Fournier patiently set the record straight, noting that Gore "never said he invented the Internet," that "his mistake was to place himself more centrally than warranted at the creation of the technology," and that "such nuance was lost on people who voted against him in 2000."

Silly voters. But how on earth did they come to the false conclusion that Gore ever claimed to have invented the Internet? Answer: By reading Ron Fournier.

"He [Gore] claimed credit for inventing the Internet, and comics had a punch line for months." (November 13, 1999)

"Gore, who once claimed to have invented the Internet, e-mailed Bush and said Democrats won't air TV ads purchased with unlimited, unregulated donations called 'soft money' unless Republicans do so first." (March 15, 2000)

“Fournier patiently set the record straight,” Boehlert noted. Meanwhile, Fournier failed to note that he himself was one of the scribes who had bollixed things up in the first place.

Brokaw was still chasing Clinton around—and we’ve never seen a major journalist come to terms with the two-year war his cohort waged against Candidate Gore. They simply refuse to tell you what happened—to explain their own past conduct, or that of their cohort as a whole. In the past, we’ve noted other journalists saying—years later!—that Gore never said he invented the Internet. We’ve never seen one of them explain why voters were told something else in real time—over and over and over again, over the course of two years.

We’ve never seen a major journalist make an honest statement about this. Question: Have you ever seen anyone challenged on this by the “liberal” or Democratic establishments? The GOP complains when it gets bad press. Your party doesn’t much seem to care.

DEFINING EXPERTISE DOWN: We’ll say one thing for Emily Bazelon’s piece in last Sunday’s New York Times magazine: It wasn’t the first time the Times misled its readers about the Wake County (North Carolina) schools—aided by the types of “educational experts” who have been defining expertise down. (For Bazelon’s piece, just click here.)

Three years ago, the Times ran a front-page, Sunday report about the educational wonders wrought in Wake County (comprising Raleigh and its suburbs)—a piece which attributed the county’s “dramatic” score gains to its class-based integration program. (For our real-time reaction, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/26/05.) In fact, similar score gains had occurred all over the state—but that fact didn’t make Alan Finder’s report. What follows is the unfortunate way Finder began:

FINDER (9/25/05): Over the last decade, black and Hispanic students here in Wake County have made such dramatic strides in standardized reading and math tests that it has caught the attention of education experts around the country.

The main reason for the students' dramatic improvement, say officials and parents in the county, which includes Raleigh and its sprawling suburbs, is that the district has made a concerted effort to integrate the schools economically.

Since 2000, school officials have used income as a prime factor in assigning students to schools, with the goal of limiting the proportion of low-income students in any school to no more than 40 percent.

The effort is the most ambitious in the country to create economically diverse public schools, and it is the most successful, according to several independent experts...

In Wake County, only 40 percent of black students in grades three through eight scored at grade level on state tests a decade ago. Last spring, 80 percent did. Hispanic students have made similar strides. Overall, 91 percent of students in those grades scored at grade level in the spring, up from 79 percent 10 years ago.

Many liberals and progressives favor the idea of race- or class-based school integration. Just for now, put aside your general view on that subject and marvel at Finder’s journalistic bungling—bungling which occurred on the front page of our most influential Sunday newspaper.

In the last sentence from that opening passage, Finder marveled at a 12-point jump in Wake County’s passing rate “on state tests.” Presumably, he referred to these changes in passing rates on the state tests in reading and math:

Wake County passing rates, all students, grades 3-8, 1995/2005:
Reading: 78.2 percent/90.3 percent
Math: 78.7 percent/91.6 percent

Clearly, Wake County had recorded score gains in that ten-year period. But uh-oh! Finder failed to include a buzz-killing fact; in North Carolina as a whole, the passing rate on the reading tests had risen by nineteen points during that period—from 67.1 percent to 85.7 percent. In math, the gain had been twenty points. (To access the state’s official data, just click here, then click “Create Custom Tables.”)

As with Bazelon, so with Finder: Times readers weren’t told that Wake County’s score gains have, in fact, been unremarkable when compared to those of the state as a whole. Instead, Finder quoted “educational experts” and local officials attributing Wake’s score gains to the county’s particular educational policies—an absurd attribution which might affect decision-making nationwide. Finder, a high-ranking journalist at our biggest newspaper, thus joined those “educational experts” in defining expertise down—in helping define the broken intellectual norms which pervade so much of our culture.

Simply put, New York Times readers were grossly misled by Finder’s front-page report. Three years later, Bazelon misled them again in her bungled magazine piece. Indeed, each report came close to being a scam—a scam largely driven by “experts.” At the risk of repetition, let’s make sure we understand the absurdity of Finder’s basic claim.

“Over the last decade,” he wrote as he started, Wake County’s black students had “made such dramatic strides in standardized reading and math tests that it has caught the attention of education experts around the country.” But as we showed you in Friday’s post, the score gains recorded by Wake County’s black students have closely tracked the gains recorded by North Carolina’s black students as a whole. On Friday, we posted the most current data (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/25/08). But what kinds of score gains had Wake’s black students recorded in 2005, at the time of Finder’s report? Here we see the relevant data, for Wake County and for the state as a whole:

Black students passing rate, reading tests, grades 3-8, Wake County only:
1995: 51.6 percent
2005: 79.7 percent

Black students passing rate, reading tests, grades 3-8, North Carolina statewide:
1995: 47.4 percent
2005: 75.8 percent

In the ten-year period to which Finder referred, Wake’s passing rate had jumped by 28.1 points among black students; statewide, the rate had jumped by 28.4 points. In short, the “dramatic stride” achieved by Wake had been slightly exceeded in the state as a whole! (Though such minor surface distinctions are meaningless.) But Finder never mentioned such facts in the course of his Sunday front-page report. Instead, he let a gang of “educational experts” attribute these gains—gains which occurred statewide—to programs pursued by Wake County alone. What follows is deeply embarrassing work—gruesome work of the type which defines expertise to the ground:

FINDER: Some experts said the academic results in Wake County were particularly significant because they bolstered research that showed low-income students did best when they attended middle-class schools.

"Low-income students who have an opportunity to go to middle-class schools are surrounded by peers who have bigger dreams and who are more academically engaged," said Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation who has written about economic integration in schools. "They are surrounded by parents who are more likely to be active in the school. And they are taught by teachers who more likely are highly qualified than the teachers in low-income schools."

Perhaps Kahlenberg was being quoted unfairly—but Finder seemed to present him as one of the “experts” who said that Wake County’s gains suggest that low-income students “do best when they attend middle-class schools.” Low-income students “do best” under Wake County’s procedures, Kahlenberg seemed to be saying. But is it true? Do low-income kids “do best” in Wake County? These were the passing rates for such students that year—in Wake County, and in the state as a whole:

Low-income students passing rate, reading tests, grades 3-8, 2005:
Wake County: 76.8 percent
North Carolina as a whole: 76.9 percent

Finder failed to include those data, or others like them—and there were a great many to work with. Indeed, in the state’s most comparable school district (Charlotte-Mecklenburg), the passing rate of low-income students had improved somewhat more than in Wake County during the period in question. On the state’s web site, data for low-income students begin in 1999:

Low-income students passing rate, reading tests, grades 3-8, 1999-2005:
Wake County: 56.4/76.8
Charlotte-Mecklenburg: 48.5/73.4

Charlotte-Mecklenburg, a slightly more urbanized district, had closed the gap on Wake County a tad during the period in question. (Though, again, such minor distinctions would need to be analyzed further.)

Sorry. Whether you were considering black students or low-income students, there was nothing remarkable about Wake County’s score gains during the period Finder reviewed. Meanwhile, with large score gains occurring all over the state, any “expert” worth his salt would have considered an obvious possibility—the possibility that passing rates were going up because the state’s tests had perhaps gotten easier. (See “De Vise gets it right,” below.) But Finder quoted “educational experts” who said nothing about this obvious possibility. They credited educational programs in Wake County for gains which had happened statewide.

And then, there were the local officials, conning local parents and voters. Some parents didn’t like the Wake County plan, which involves a degree of involuntary busing. Responding to their complaints, superintendent Bill McNeal was quick to praise his own plain brilliance—and apparently, to cite those score gains! Good God! “Expertise” has been defined to the ground when you look at that highlighted sentence:

FINDER: Some parents chafe at the length of their children's bus rides or at what they see as social engineering. But the test results are hard to dispute, proponents of economic integration say, as is the broad appeal of the school district, which has been growing by 5,000 students a year.

"What I say to parents is, 'Here is what you should hold me accountable for: at the end of that bus ride, are we providing a quality education for your child?' " Bill McNeal, the school superintendent, said.

Asked how parents respond, Mr. McNeal said, ''They are coming back, and they are bringing their friends.''

“The test results are hard to dispute,” Finder quoted unnamed people saying—even as he failed to tell readers how laughably easy they were to “dispute.” Soon, he quoted another local official:

FINDER: The board of education had two motives when it decided to make economic integration a main element in the district's strategy: board members feared that the county's three-decade effort to integrate public schools racially would be found unconstitutional if challenged in the federal courts, and they took note of numerous studies that showed the academic benefits of economically diversifying schools.

“There is a lot of evidence that it's just sound educational policy, sound public policy, to try to avoid concentrations of low-achieving students,” said John H. Gilbert, a professor emeritus at North Carolina State University in Raleigh who served for 16 years on the county school board and voted for the plan. "They do much better and advantaged students are not hurt by it if you follow policies that avoid concentrating low-achievement students.”

Low-achieving students “do much better” under Wake County’s procedures, Gilbert said. We’ll assume he didn’t understand a simple fact: Nothing in the Wake County data supported this pre-approved notion. In closing, Finder poured it on, quoting another poobah:

FINDER: A school board election will take place in October. While the board has continued to endorse economic integration, some supporters worry that that could change one day.

''It's not easy and it can be very contentious in the community,'' said Walter C. Sherlin, who retired two years ago as an associate superintendent. “Is it worth doing? Look at 91 percent at or above grade level. Look at 139 schools, all of them successful. I think the answer is obvious.”

The county’s plan may well be “worth doing,” but the citation of that passing rate was once again grossly misleading. But gong-show claims drove Finder’s piece. But then, cheerful assertions were widespread this day. “Diversity strategies in Raleigh-area schools are getting results,” a Times photo caption said.

As a matter of simple journalism, Finder’s front-page report was a hideous groaner. Three years later, Bazelon did the near-impossible—she bungled the Wake County story more grossly. Work of this type raises obvious questions about the nation’s intellectual culture—about the functioning of our upper-class journalistic and intellectual elites. Expertise is defined through the floor when the New York Times offers such work on its Sunday front page—in its magazine.

Finder and Bazelon are high-ranking journalists. Each wrote in the Sunday edition of the nation’s most important newspaper; in each case, they based their groaning presentations on the work of “educational experts.” In doing do, they achieved two tasks. They grossly misinformed Times readers—and they defined expertise to the ground.

TOMORROW: Hedrick Smith loses the battle of Charlotte—and more from Bazelon’s piece

WEDNESDAY: Kahlenberg slices it fine

THURSDAY: Are test scores actually rising? And by the way: When it comes to low-income kids, does anyone actually care?

DE VISE GETS IT RIGHT: Wow! Daniel de Vise got it very right in yesterday’s Washington Post. We’ll return to his piece later this week; we think some points could be expanded upon. (Two words: Technical manual.) But de Vise did something big scribes rarely do—he asked the world’s most obvious question about the nation’s rising test scores. Our analysts nearly choked on their bagels when they read this opening passage:

DE VISE (7/27/08): Maryland educators this month celebrated a major jump in test scores, with achievement gaps narrowing and pass rates rising six percentage points in reading and four points in math. Then skeptics crashed the party.

The revelation that this year's Maryland School Assessments were a half-hour shorter than last year's raised suspicions among researchers who thought the scores were too good to be true. Here, some thought, was the smoking pencil.

The episode illustrates a basic disagreement within the education community over why scores are rising across the nation since the 2002 enactment of No Child Left Behind, which sets a goal of 100 percent proficiency by 2014: Are kids getting smarter, or are tests getting easier?

“Are kids getting smarter, or are tests getting easier?” For the past decade, big news orgs have avoided that question like the plague—nowhere more than in North Carolina. Finder got conned—and so did Bazelon, much like Hedrick Smith before her. Yesterday, de Vise got it right. More to come later this week.

The 40 percent conundrum: On Friday, we wondered where Bazelon got a particular statistic—a stat which seemed to embellish the size of Wake County’s score gains (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/25/08). This was part of her presentation about the “striking improvements” which have occurred in the county’s transplendent schools:

BAZELON (7/20/08): [T]he 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.

In fact, the state’s official data say that 51.6 percent of Wake County’s black kids passed the reading tests in 1995. Where did the 40 percent figure come from? Over the weekend, we e-mailed Bazelon with that question; so far, no reply. (As we said, it was the weekend.) But if you look at Finder’s murky opening passage (see above), we may have our answer. “In Wake County, only 40 percent of black students in grades three through eight scored at grade level on state tests a decade ago,” he wrote. We’ll take a charitable guess about what that murky formulation may have meant; it may have meant that only 40 percent of the black students passed both the reading test and the math test. (Such data aren’t available on the state web site.) We’ll take a guess: Bazelon (or her editor) may have misunderstood Finder’s statement. Being major American journalists, they of course wouldn’t check the real data.

This is all speculation, of course; we’ll keep seeking the actual answer. But how about this speculation:

Speculation: Bazelon used the accurate figure; this would explain why her piece oddly says that the passing rate “almost doubled.” And then, along came a helpful editor! Finder’s murky statistic was spotted and was incorrectly put in place. According to official state data, that “40 percent” statistic is wrong in Bazelon’s piece—but it made a good tale just that much better! And as we’ve shown you for so many years: Making bogus tales even better is pretty much what modern “journalists” do.

Once again, this is pure speculation. We’re assuming that Bazelon’s “40 percent” statistic is wrong. But we’ll happily say if it’s accurate.

UPDATE: Having e-mailed Emily Bazelon through Slate's DC office last night, we got a prompt reply to our question about the source of that "forty percent" figure. (Today's TDH and the e-mail passed in the daylight. We had e-mailed her earlier at an apparently now-defunct Slate address.) This is what she wrote:

BAZELON E-MAIL: I got that stat from John Powell (quoted in the story) and from a story in the local paper about the district. For reasons I don't quite understand, the district itself couldn't confirm stats going back that far. If it is wrong, please do let me know. And regardless I will take a look at your posts. Thanks for picking up the thread.

Powell is described in Bazelon's story as a researcher who directs the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University. (We guess that local newspaper story fulfills the "two sources" rule!) This leaves us with a problem, of course; as we have noted, the state of North Carolina maintains a detailed, on-line set of records which says that the number in question is 51.6 percent, not 40. Passing rates for surrounding years are consistent with that larger figure, not with the one Bazelon used. Granted, we now regret all that wild speculation about where the "40 percent" figure came from. But perhaps you see the puzzling ways the work of the world is now done.

Is "Powell said" really an answer? To be perfectly honest, no: It is not. Do engineers build bridges this way? If they did, would you drive your car over them? We'll try to learn more from the North Carolina Department of Ed. But for ourselves, we'd be slow to base sweeping assertions on data obtained in this way.