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ANOTHER FINE DISGRACE! “It’s a national disgrace,” Bybee said. Readers knew that the Times really cares: // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 17, 2006

PINEHURST OR BUST: We’re off to Pinehurst—though not to play golf. But before we set out on this key mission, we spied Gotham’s Times—in the rough:

ANOTHER FINE DISGRACE: Are we all Borat? The incomparable question came to mind when we read this report in yesterday’s Times. Diane Jean Schemo reported new results from a national testing program (the NAEP) about science achievement in urban schools. In paragraph 6, we finally got to the outrage. When we read it, it made us feel good:
SCHEMO (11/16/06): “It’s a national disgrace,” said Rodger W. Bybee, director of the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study, which develops and evaluates science curriculums and promotes the teaching of science. “We as a nation should be able to do better than that.”
Let’s face it—it wouldn’t be a report on the schools without some expert emoting like that. But what exactly was this “disgrace?” As a nation, we should do better than what? It wasn’t clear from what Bybee said—nor was it fully clear from Schemo’s report. This seemed like outrage-by-the-numbers—a report our dear Borat might have penned.

What was Bybee outraged about? Here’s how Schemo opened:
SCHEMO: At least half of eighth graders tested in science failed to demonstrate even a basic understanding of the subject in 9 of 10 major cities, and fourth graders, the only other group tested, fared little better, according to results released here Wednesday.
According to Schemo, these results “showed that student performance in urban public schools was not only poor but also far short of science scores in the nation as a whole.” But when she got to paragraphs 3 and 4, the disparity in those science scores didn’t seem quite as vast as promoted:
SCHEMO: Half or a little more of the eighth-grade students in Charlotte, San Diego and Boston lacked a basic grasp of science. In six of the other cities—New York, Houston, Chicago, Cleveland, Los Angeles and Atlanta—the share of eighth graders without that knowledge was even higher, ranging from about three-fifths in New York to about four-fifths in Atlanta.

By comparison, the corresponding share for the nation as a whole was 43 percent.
In three of the ten major cities, the “below basic” rate was “half or a little more” than half. But then, the below-basic rate for the nation as a whole was 43 percent! It’s hard to believe that anyone would really be shocked by that type of disparity. Meanwhile, in New York City, “about three-fifths” scored below basic. (According to a team of experts, three-fifths is 60 percent.)

Obviously, it would be better if we lived in Lake Wobegon—if all the students were above average. But is it really still a surprise when we hear that kids in urban schools are doing somewhat worse than kids in the nation as a whole? In fact, the Times ran charts next to Schemo’s report; the first chart showed that white eighth-graders in four of nine cities reporting such data were doing better than their counterparts in the nation as a whole. In a fifth city, New York, the below-basic rate for white kids was 29 percent—and that was only one point worse than the rate for the whole bloomin’ nation.

So it’s largely about our minority kids. But don’t we already know by now that our low-income, urban minority kids are doing less well than kids as a whole? Instead of acting like this is “news,” mightn’t we start to ask ourselves how we could improve this situation? Here’s a question we’d quickly ask: How many kids in those low-income urban schools have had access to functioning, well-planned, well-equipped science programs? More specifically, if the kids are reading several years below grade level, do their teachers have textbooks and supplementary books that the kids can actually read? We’ll take a wild guess—no, they do not. We’ll guess that these kids haven’t been getting science textbooks they can read—or, perhaps, any science textbooks at all. (For previous work on this matter, see below.) We’ll guess that their teachers flounder and flail—that these children display a “failure to thrive” in science learning that is, in fact, wholly predictable.

So how about it? Are authorities in Gotham’s low-income schools providing their students with usable programs? Schemo didn’t ask. Instead, she got handed this perfect pap, then rushed it into the paper:
SCHEMO: New York's schools chancellor, Joel I. Klein, pointed out in a statement that low-income students there had done better than those in most other cities, but added, ''We, like the rest of the country, have a lot more work to do in this critical area'' of teaching science to the poor.

He noted that beginning with the next academic year, the city would begin testing students annually in science in Grades 3 to 8. Another innovation for the 2007-8 school year is that under the No Child Left Behind Act, public schools across the country must begin testing students in science at least once from Grades 3 to 8. But the results of these tests, like those of New York's, will not determine whether schools have made sufficient progress under the law, which counts only reading and math to determine a school's standing.
What perfect crap—we’ll start to test them! But readers, you can test these students as much as you like, but when you see them fail the test, that doesn’t tell you what to do next. It doesn’t give teachers a functional science program—a program that, among other things, has lots of readable books for the students. If teachers of low-income kids don’t have such things now, testing the students doesn’t change that. Trust us—most of the teachers already know that their kids don’t know squat about science.

But how we love to type those headlines! To feign that outrage! To shock the reader’s soul! It tells the reader that we really care—and sends our floundering low-income kids right back where they came from.

“It’s a national disgrace,” Bybee said. We remember—and remember the cause.

A BASIC CONCEPT: Wait a minute! Maybe Bybee was outraged by the fact that 43 percent of all eighth-graders scored “below basic” in science. Maybe—but let’s stay clear on a very key point. It’s always a subjective matter when you decide what counts as “basic.” Some experts think the NAEP is unreasonably hard. For ourselves, we have no opinion.

VISIT OUR INCOMPARABLE ARCHIVES: Do low-income kids have science books they can read? Textbooks and supplementary materials? We first asked the question in 1982; see THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/30/06. Also: Did Ruben ever get to read about frogs? See THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/30/06.