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Print view: In the wake of a sorry blog post, we offer the Ezra Klein Challenge
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PRESENTING THE EZRA KLEIN CHALLENGE! In the wake of a sorry blog post, we offer the Ezra Klein Challenge: // link // print // previous // next //

When the police chief jokes, we don’t listen: When the police commissioner jokes, we don’t listen—we laugh, in uproarious fashion!

Last night, we were happy to serve as a judge in the “Funniest Celebrity in Baltimore” contest, benefiting the R Baby Foundation (click here). Maryland’s first lady, Katie O’Malley, was nice enough to throw out the first joke. But the actual contest was won by a man of many threats to the judges—by Baltimore City Police Commissioner Frederick Bealefeld! The savvy commissioner performed in uniform, defeating (among others) Philip Closius, dean of the University of Baltimore Law School.

We’re fairly sure the commish will be keeping his day job. From the program: “With his grandfather, great-grandfather and great uncles on the force, it was a childhood dream of Commissioner Bealefeld’s to serve in the Baltimore Police Department.” Through a skillful blend of jokes and threats, the commish has extended that dream.

Special report: Matt Miller’s strange tale!

PART 4—PRESENTING THE EZRA KLEIN CHALLENGE (permalink): Our culture devotes a lot of attention to matters we deem worth discussing. On Tuesday, we were struck by this news report, written by John Noble Wilford, in the New York Times.

Wilford reported ongoing efforts to record the planet’s dying languages. His report was detailed, and quite well written. It was accompanied by two color photos. It started off like this:

WILFORD (10/12/10): Hunting One Language, Stumbling Upon Another

Two years ago, a team of linguists plunged into the remote hill country of northeastern India to study little-known languages, many of them unwritten and in danger of falling out of use.

On average, every two weeks one of the world’s recorded 7,000 languages becomes extinct, and the expedition was seeking to document and help preserve the endangered ones in these isolated villages.

At a rushing mountain river, the linguists crossed on a bamboo raft and entered the tiny village of Kichang. They expected to hear the people speaking Aka, a fairly common tongue in that district. Instead, they heard a language, the linguists said, that sounded as different from Aka as English does from Japanese.

Not that there’s anything wrong with it! As he continued, Wilford described “the discovery of a ‘hidden’ language, known locally as Koro, completely new to the world outside these rural communities.”

The discovery of this new, hidden language was announced just last week. The New York Times rushed the news into print, in a well-written news report accompanied by two color photos.

That’s the way your culture deals with matters it deems important. At the upscale Times, highly cultured reports like this help establish the newspaper’s brand.

By way of contrast, consider the way your culture deals with matters involving black kids.

Way back in 1967, Jonathan Kozol described the way your culture was dealing with such kids in their public elementary schools. (“Many people in Boston are surprised, even to this day, to be told that children are beaten with thin bamboo whips within the cellars of our public schools and that they are whipped at times for no greater offence than for failing to show respect to the very same teachers who have been describing them as niggers.”)

So Jonathan wrote, in 1967, in his famous book, Death at an Early Age. Yesterday morning, Ezra Klein gave us a taste of the way our culture deals with such kids today.

Quite justifiably, Ezra is often regarded as the Bright Young Man of contemporary liberal journalism. On his blog at the Washington Post, he discusses “Economic and Domestic Policy, and Lots of It.” He offers heavily data-driven accounts of a wide range of policy topics. On Thursday, he made a rare excursion into the world of low-income schools.

This came at a time when such schools are being widely discussed, in large part due to Davis Guggenheims’s “manipulative, simplistic” documentary, Waiting for Superman. (The quote comes from New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, who praised the director being “manipulative” and “simplistic” in his much-discussed film.)

Ezra’s take was quite brief. “Bad news—and good news—on education policy,” his headline said. (To read the full post, click here.) Kevin Drum had spoken “some hard truths on education and poverty policy,” Ezra wrote—and then, he posted a fairly large chunk from Kevin’s recent post, which we discussed on Wednesday.

The deletion was made by Ezra. The highlighting was done to us:

KEVIN DRUM (AS POSTED BY EZRA KLEIN): I'm going to get the ed people mad at me again—and I guess I'll add the poverty people too this time—but I continue to think that the biggest problem here is simply that no one has any really compelling answers. Movies like Waiting for Superman (which I haven't seen), along with an endless stream of credulous punditry, keep suggesting that the answers are out there if only we'll fund them and take them seriously. But they aren't. Charter schools are great, but they're no panacea. (Not yet, anyway. Maybe someday after we figure out which ones work.) High-stakes testing might be a necessary evil, but it hasn't proven to have any long-term value yet either. Etc. You can go down the list of every ed reform every touted, and they either can't scale up, turn out to have ambiguous results when proper studies are done, or simply wash out over time.

So is the answer is to address concentrated poverty? Sure. Except that, if anything, attempts to address poverty have a worse track record than attempts to improve education. Hell, attempts to address poverty have such a bad track record that even credulous pundits rarely bother writing about it anymore. Nobody really seems to have any compelling answers, and for about 90% of the country it's just too easy to ignore the problem entirely. They won't phrase it quite this way, of course, but basically they're willing to let the cities rot.

I would really, really like someone to tell me I'm wrong. So far, though, no one has. At least, not to my satisfaction. But I'm willing to be schooled if anyone thinks I'm missing the big picture here.

“That mostly describes my thinking, too,” Ezra said, devoting 86 words to his critique, in which time he managed to discuss the relative merits of merit pay, charter schools and early childhood education.

In forty-three years, we’ve gone from whippings in the basement to low-grade contempt like that.

What was wrong with Ezra’s post, a tossed-off version of “What Kevin Said?” In part, the problem with Ezra’s post can be seen in Figure 1 of a widely-discussed ETS report—a report which spawned a great deal of bungled journalistic discussion just a few months ago. (For the most part, this wasn’t the fault of the study’s authors. See link below). In the part of the graphic shown below, you see reading scores for 9-year-old students on the National Assessment of Education Progress, the widely-ballyhooed, widely-lauded “gold standard” of educational testing. The reading scores have been “disaggregated,” showing results for black kids and white kids. The scores date back to 1971, when the NAEP’s “long-term trend” study began. (To see the full graphic, click here, scroll down to page 5.)

Let’s look at the reading scores for 9-year-old black kids, starting in 1971. The scores trend up quickly from 1971 through 1980, then bounce about, largely staying in place, through 1999. But at that point, these reading scores begin moving up again; they begin moving up very sharply. From 1999 through 2008, black kids are shown gaining 18 points on the NAEP reading scale—a score gain which is actually understated on this graphic due to a change in procedure the NAEP undertook in 2004.

Figure 1 gragh

Allowing for that change in procedure, we would say that black 9-year-olds more accurately gained 21 points on the NAEP reading scale during this nine-year period. How big an academic gain might that 21 points represent? Routinely, educational experts offer a rough rule of thumb, in which ten points on the NAEP scale is said to be equivalent to one academic year.

We regard that as a very rough rule of thumb. We’d be amazed if black 9-year-olds really gained two years in reading achievement, on average, over their earlier counterparts during that nine-year span. But unless something is massively wrong with these data, you are looking at very substantial growth by black kids over that relatively short period. (This ETS study used these data because they are widely regarded as the most authoritative data we have—as the “gold standard.”)

Those reading scores went way up from 1999 to 2008. Despite this—despite similar data found throughout both of the NAEP’s two major studies—liberals like Ezra routinely throw black kids away in gloomy, 86-word ruminations. They show no sign of ever having troubled themselves to look at these data. This is even true at Ezra’s blog, which spills with data every day.

How different are these modern writers from the well-meaning people who whipped Kozol’s students in the basement of their Boston school? In Death at an Early Age, Jonathan devoted a great deal of space to the protestations of people with whom he taught, people who insisted that they truly had the interests of the school’s black children at heart.

Especially at a time when “manipulative, simplistic” propaganda is being aggressively broadcast about public schools—about teachers and their infernal unions—we’d have to say that Ezra’s post was a minor moral disgrace. For that reason, we are today issuing The Ezra Klein Challenge—a challenge we’ll extend to a series of major liberals (and others), whose names we present below.

Our challenge:

Explain why we keep offering gloomy, throw-away posts in the face of these data.

Explain why we allow ugly, simplistic attacks on teachers (and on their infernal unions) in the face of these data.

Explain why we keep saying there are no solutions, when data from both of the NAEP’s major studies seem to suggest that something has been working in the past dozen years.

Explain why we refuse to offer credit where credit is due:

To the nation’s deserving black kids, who seem to be showing substantial progress in both of the NAEP’s major studies. To the nation’s deserving Hispanic kids, whose score gains have been similarly large. To the nation’s maddening white kids, who have largely maintained the “achievement gap” during this period because their NAEP scores have gone up too.

To the nation’s public school teachers, who seem to be doing something right, unless there’s something massively wrong with the NAEP’s voluminous data. To the nation’s superintendents, who have been screaming and yelling at the nation’s teachers.

Again and again in the past two months, we’ve described these data here at THE HOWLER—the data from the NAEP’s “long-term trend” study and the data from the NAEP’S “main” study. We won’t waste time describing those data again today. Below, we’ll link to some previous work.

But manifestly, it seems that nothing can make the modern liberal speak about these data. Would Ezra Klein have whipped black kids in the basement of Jonathan Kozol’s school? Plainly, we’ll assume the answer is no. But the modern liberal is allowed to serve plutocrat interests in more antiseptic ways.

The madness of your dying culture is seen in the topics we agree to ignore. All through last year’s “debate” about health care, health care experts, journalists and liberals agreed to ignore a remarkable fact—the fact that the U.S. spends two to three times as much on health care, per person, as all other large, developed nations. We never saw a serious attempt to discuss that remarkable fact. No such effort was ever made within the mainstream press, or by a “liberal journal.”

This year, as teachers and unions are endlessly trashed, we all agree to ignore the data from the NAEP’s two major studies. In the face of those striking data, data-driven liberals like Ezra and Kevin toss off gloomy, hurried posts, announcing that nothing seems to work. Whips in hand, they allow the plutocrats to build a nasty, consequential narrative about the failure of public schools—about the evils of unions.

Would Ezra Klein have whipped Kozol’s kids? Manifestly, the answer is no. For that reason, we issue a challenge to Klein, and to other major writers who tend to traffic in data:

To Paul Krugman, the most important journalist of the past decade.

To Jonathan Chait; to Kevin Drum; to David Brooks; even to Nicholas Kristof.

To Eugene Robinson, whose new book chronicles the black experience. To E. J. Dionne.

To Joan Walsh, who edits a “liberal journal” which brands itself as caring on race. To the editors of the other “liberal journals”—the Nation; the New Republic; the Washington Monthly; the American Prospect.

To John McWhorter, who roams outside conventional narratives in his writing on race. How about to Professor Gates, who could get an article published? (If he can spare a minute or two from his pimping of famous celebrities.)

To education writers and editors at newspapers like the New York Times—newspapers which file learned reports, with color photos, when someone finds a new hidden language in a remote village somewhere.

(Would it kill a journal like Mother Jones to write about black kids’ achievements?)

The data are there for all to see, in both the NAEP’S major studies. And the data are striking over the past dozen years.

Our challenge:

Tell the public about those data! After that, try to explain the data. Stop insisting that nothing works when it seems that something has been working. If you give the first flying fig about black kids—about Hispanic kids, about low-income kids—try to figure out why those scores have gone up!

But, more than anything else, just do your damn jobs for once: Just report those data! Mention these data when the plutocrat’s agents launch their incessant attacks on the schools—on the people who teach in the schools, on their infernal unions.

By inference, on black kids themselves.

Sorry, but the discussion flowing from Waiting for Superman has been a rolling moral disgrace. The liberal world has sat and stared as this ugly, stupid discussion unfolds—as Guggenheim is praised for being simplistic.

The New York Times writes learned reports when a language is found in an Indian village. At the Post, Klein promises readers that they will get “Economic and Domestic Policy, and Lots of It.” Fulfilling that promise, his blog spills over with data, on a daily basis.

So go head—take The Ezra Klein Challenge! It’s a challenge we issue to Ezra, and to all the other writers we’ve named! When it comes to low-income schools, let’s get off our big fat keisters for once. Explain the data we’ve been describing—the data in both of the NAEP’s major studies.

Just for once, could we do the right thing? Jonathan’s book is covered with dust. Must its patterns linger?

Visit our incomparable archives: In the past several months, we’ve endlessly described the data in the NAEP’s two major studies. As has been true for decades now, liberals refuse to care.

Just enter “NAEP” in our whirring search engines for endless links to these endless reports. But for a one-stop review of the data found in both major studies, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/1/10.

In that same piece, you will see George Will bungle that recent ETS report, misunderstanding the difference between achievement itself and the achievement gap. (Minority kids’ achievement is up. Because white kids’ achievement is also up, the gap has largely remained.)

Bottom line: In the past dozen years, tests scores are strongly improved among black kids and Hispanic kids, on both of the NAEP’s major studies. Liberals and journalists simply won’t say so.

For our money, these data-deniers stand near the top of those stairs. They have the best interests of black kids at heart, not unlike Kozol’s fellow teachers.