DEFINING EXPERTISE DOWN! Educational experts keep conning the Times about Wake Countys score gains: // link // print // previous // next //
MONDAY, JULY 28, 2008
DEMONS DONT DIE: We strongly recommend this excellent piece by the excellent team of Alterman/Zornick; the lads discuss the press corps lazy reaction to Al Gores recent energy proposal. As weve said, the press has almost perfected the art of avoiding all discussions of substanceand were glad to see these two liberal scribes complaining about this practice. For unknown reasons, some liberals even praised Tom Brokaws 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 networkincluding a good deal of his own work during Campaign 2000:
Truly, that was astounding. Whatever one thinks of Clintons proposal, it was hardly worth discussing herekilling time that could have gone to a more seminal topic. Meanwhile, a guy named McCain proposed that tax holiday tooand hes still running for president! But Gore was asked if Clinton was irresponsible. That other name didnt 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 timesome of it on NBCs treasured demonology. But then, these viral matters never really go awayand theyre never discussed honestly within the mainstream press corps. Consider one part of Eric Boehlerts recent profile of the APs 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:
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 aroundand weve 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 happenedto explain their own past conduct, or that of their cohort as a whole. In the past, weve noted other journalists sayingyears later!that Gore never said he invented the Internet. Weve never seen one of them explain why voters were told something else in real timeover and over and over again, over the course of two years.
Weve 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 doesnt much seem to care.
DEFINING EXPERTISE DOWN: Well say one thing for Emily Bazelons piece in last Sundays New York Times magazine: It wasnt the first time the Times misled its readers about the Wake County (North Carolina) schoolsaided by the types of educational experts who have been defining expertise down. (For Bazelons 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 countys 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 statebut that fact didnt make Alan Finders report. What follows is the unfortunate way Finder began:
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 Finders journalistic bunglingbungling 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 Countys passing rate on state tests. Presumably, he referred to these changes in passing rates on the state tests in reading and math:
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 periodfrom 67.1 percent to 85.7 percent. In math, the gain had been twenty points. (To access the states official data, just click here, then click Create Custom Tables.)
As with Bazelon, so with Finder: Times readers werent told that Wake Countys 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 Wakes score gains to the countys particular educational policiesan 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 downin helping define the broken intellectual norms which pervade so much of our culture.
Simply put, New York Times readers were grossly misled by Finders front-page report. Three years later, Bazelon misled them again in her bungled magazine piece. Indeed, each report came close to being a scama scam largely driven by experts. At the risk of repetition, lets make sure we understand the absurdity of Finders basic claim.
Over the last decade, he wrote as he started, Wake Countys 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 Fridays post, the score gains recorded by Wake Countys black students have closely tracked the gains recorded by North Carolinas 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 Wakes black students recorded in 2005, at the time of Finders report? Here we see the relevant data, for Wake County and for the state as a whole:
In the ten-year period to which Finder referred, Wakes 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 gainsgains which occurred statewideto programs pursued by Wake County alone. What follows is deeply embarrassing workgruesome work of the type which defines expertise to the ground:
Perhaps Kahlenberg was being quoted unfairlybut Finder seemed to present him as one of the experts who said that Wake Countys gains suggest that low-income students do best when they attend middle-class schools. Low-income students do best under Wake Countys 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 yearin Wake County, and in the state as a whole:
Finder failed to include those data, or others like themand there were a great many to work with. Indeed, in the states 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 states web site, data for low-income students begin in 1999:
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 Countys 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 possibilitythe possibility that passing rates were going up because the states 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 didnt 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 brillianceand apparently, to cite those score gains! Good God! Expertise has been defined to the ground when you look at that highlighted sentence:
The test results are hard to dispute, Finder quoted unnamed people sayingeven as he failed to tell readers how laughably easy they were to dispute. Soon, he quoted another local official:
Low-achieving students do much better under Wake Countys procedures, Gilbert said. Well assume he didnt understand a simple fact: Nothing in the Wake County data supported this pre-approved notion. In closing, Finder poured it on, quoting another poobah:
The countys plan may well be worth doing, but the citation of that passing rate was once again grossly misleading. But gong-show claims drove Finders 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, Finders front-page report was a hideous groaner. Three years later, Bazelon did the near-impossibleshe bungled the Wake County story more grossly. Work of this type raises obvious questions about the nations intellectual cultureabout 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 pagein its magazine.
Finder and Bazelon are high-ranking journalists. Each wrote in the Sunday edition of the nations 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 readersand they defined expertise to the ground.
TOMORROW: Hedrick Smith loses the battle of Charlotteand more from Bazelons 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 yesterdays Washington Post. Well 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 dohe asked the worlds most obvious question about the nations rising test scores. Our analysts nearly choked on their bagels when they read this opening passage:
Are kids getting smarter, or are tests getting easier? For the past decade, big news orgs have avoided that question like the plaguenowhere more than in North Carolina. Finder got connedand 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 statistica stat which seemed to embellish the size of Wake Countys score gains (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/25/08). This was part of her presentation about the striking improvements which have occurred in the countys transplendent schools:
In fact, the states official data say that 51.6 percent of Wake Countys 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 Finders 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. Well 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 arent available on the state web site.) Well take a guess: Bazelon (or her editor) may have misunderstood Finders statement. Being major American journalists, they of course wouldnt check the real data.
This is all speculation, of course; well 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! Finders murky statistic was spotted and was incorrectly put in place. According to official state data, that 40 percent statistic is wrong in Bazelons piecebut it made a good tale just that much better! And as weve shown you for so many years: Making bogus tales even better is pretty much what modern journalists do.
Once again, this is pure speculation. Were assuming that Bazelons 40 percent statistic is wrong. But well happily say if its 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:
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.