MISUSE THE CHILDREN WELL: Laurel and Ravitch!

THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 20, 2012

Part 3—Gail Collins types what she's told: All through her work on the Texas schools, Gail Collins displays a tremendous tolerance for not knowing what she is talking about.

The breezy style stays firmly in place. The facts and the logic are fuzzy:
COLLINS (page 75): When the Reagan White House started ringing the warning bell about international competition in the 1980s, Texas was still close to the bottom of the barrel when it came to the quality of education. Beginning public school teachers were paid $4,100 per year. Administrative costs were high, in part because Texas had 1,031 independent school districts, nearly 400 of which had fewer than 500 students...Funding was wildly inequitable. The wealthiest district in the state had more than $14 million in assessed property value to tax for each child in the local public schools, while the poorest district had $20,000.

The first serious effort to change things came in the mid-1980s from Governor Mark White, a Democrat who was once described by an opponent as “one of the first nerds in Texas.” White wanted to improve education as a tribute to his mother, an overworked teacher. “I’ve got pictures of her classroom in the first grade with thirty-four kids in it,” he told reporters. To figure out what to do, he append the inevitable blue-ribbon commission, with Ross Perot as chairman.
In the 1980s, was Texas “close to the bottom of the barrel when it came to the quality of education?” It’s certainly possible, but none of the data provided by Collins actually answer that question.

Teachers may have been underpaid as compared to other states. (Or not: Collins provides no basis for comparison, and she doesn’t discuss the cost of living in Texas.) But that can’t tell you how well their students were learning to read and write.

We chuckled a bit at the story about White’s overworked mother. In September 1970, we started our first full year as a Baltimore teacher. In our fifth grade class, we had forty-one kids on the roll; we had at least thirty-eight all through the school year.

In the 1950s, our own first grade in a Boston suburb had thirty kids in the class.

Whatever! As we've noted, Collins is all about narrative. In her “breezy, wisecracking polemical” account, the Texas schools were very bad, then got somewhat better thanks to two reforms efforts, neither of which involved George W. Bush. She rarely seems to worry about the lack of evidence for her various claims. When actual evidence does exist, she rarely seems aware of this fact.

As we noted yesterday, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) began assembling data for the Texas schools in 1990. Those data show Texas children making remarkable progress between 1990 and 2000.

Collins doesn’t seem to know that these data exist, even though she has said that the NAEP provides the nation’s most reliable educational data. According to Collins, it’s “very, very hard to figure” how much better the Texas schools got during this period. She then quotes a wisecrack from a 2000 column by Molly Ivins in which the Texas schools were said to have “rocketed from abysmal to only slightly below average in a mere thirty years.”

By the time of Ivins’ wisecrack, black and Hispanic kids in Texas schools were outperforming their peers from around the nation on the NAEP. Presumably, Ivins didn’t know that fact. Twelve years later, the clueless, irresponsible Collins still doesn’t seem to have checked.

Despite her many “jokey asides,” Collins rarely seems to know what she’s talking about. Nor does she really seem to care about the truth of her claims. That said, her presentation becomes an act of outright fraud in the passage which follows, where she pretends to assess the present state of the Texas schools.

Please note the breezy style with which she presents her howlers. The “reform plan” to which she refers is No Child Left Behind:
COLLINS (page 91): You may be wondering how things are going, education-wise, in the state that deeded its reform plan to the nation. Paul Sadler, the Democrat who led the effort in the Texas house, complains that the state is “testing our kids to death.” (Under the state’s newest regimen, students take seventeen high-stakes tests between third and eighth grade, and up to a dozen more while they’re in high school.) A survey by the Texas State Teachers Association showed that 43 percent of its members were seriously thinking of looking for another line of work.

Sadler still believes that the leaps made in the 1990s are holding up. “I think most of our schools do a pretty good job,” he said. Other observers are, at a minimum, disillusioned. “The eighth grade reading scores were exactly the same in 2009 as 1998,” said Diane Ravitch, referring to the scores Texas received in the national NAEP test results. (I know we were trying to avoid them, but sometimes it’s impossible.) “The whole country is now embarked on remedies that didn’t do anything for Texas.”

David Grissmer, the author of that glowing RAND study, says that since 2000, when the study came out, Texas students’ scores on national tests have begun to “flag.” Perhaps coincidentally, that was exactly the time when Bush stopped being governor and turned the state over to Perry, whose interest in K-12 education was minimal. When the state’s budget developed a monster hole in 2011, Perry refused to raise taxes—or even dip into state savings—to avoid enormous cuts in school aid. As the impact began to hit districts, schools began cutting back on programs that had been in place since the Perot commission, seeking waivers on class size and preschool requirements.
To state the obvious, Perry's decision in 2011 can't explain the alleged stagnation of the previous decade. But whatever! This whole passage flows!

There’s more to that third paragraph; Collins' performance gets much worse, as we will see tomorrow. But in the paragraphs we have posted, Collins quotes Grissmer saying that Texas test scores have started to "flag" in the past decade.

If we’re talking about the NAEP, that statement is false—wildly so.

Ravitch is more specific. Collins quotes her making a statement which can be said to be technically accurate. But her statement is also grossly misleading, as Collins would know if she ever bothered to check those “national NAEP test results.”

Where to begin? Texas scores have soared on the NAEP during the years in question! For one example, let’s talk about eighth-grade math, where we must start in the years 2000.

(Quick background: Principally, the NAEP tests fourth- and eighth-graders in reading and math. There were no math tests in 1998.)

Have test scores in Texas started to flag in eighth-grade math? Here are the “average scale scores” for all Texas students during the period under review. Please note: As a very rough rule of thumb, ten points on the NAEP is often said to equal one academic year:
Eighth-grade math, all students in Texas, NAEP
2000: 273.4
2009: 286.7
2011: 290.4
On its face, that represents a phenomenal rise in eighth-grade math scores. And the score gains only become more impressive when we “disaggregate” the data, looking at different parts of the student population. Good God! The scores of black eighth-graders in Texas have gone through the roof during this period:
Eighth-grade math, black students in Texas, NAEP
2000: 249.9
2009: 272.3
2011: 276.9
Those scores have gone through the roof. In the process, black eighth-graders in Texas have left their national peers far behind. In 2011, the national average for black eighth-graders was 261.8 in math. Black kids in Texas were beating their peers by more than 15 points.

(The state’s Hispanic eighth-graders produced similar score gains during this period. From 2000 through 2011, the average score jumped from 262.0 up to 283.2. That 2011 score was 14 points above the national average for Hispanic eighth-graders. White kids gained 17 points.)

Why would Grissmer say that Texas scores have started to flag since the year 2000? We have no idea. Why would Collins repeat such a claim? Presumably, because she never took the time to review the NAEP data, which she has described as the nation’s most reliable educational data. (For fairly obvious reasons, everyone says the same thing.)

At any rate, similar patterns obtain all over the NAEP results—except in eighth-grade reading, where Ravitch composed a narrow claim which can thus be called technically accurate.

“The eighth grade reading scores were exactly the same in 2009 as 1998,” Collins quotes Ravitch saying. In the second quotation from Ravitch, her words give the impression that Texas test scores have been floundering in all tested areas.

That impression is utterly false. Ravitch’s narrow first statement is technically accurate, but even it is misleading.

A bit of background: Eighth-grade reading is the area in which the nation’s students have shown the least improvement on the NAEP. For that reason, Ravitch constantly uses this measure to characterize the Texas schools, ignoring the other three areas where score gains have been stronger, both in Texas and across the nation.

In other words, Ravitch cherry-picks eighth-grade reading to give the worst possible impression of the Texas schools. And at that point, she cherry-picks further. In the statement quoted by Collins, she refers to the average score in eighth-grade reading achieved by all Texas students—no disaggregation allowed.

In truth, her narrow statement is accurate. Here are the relevant scores:
Eighth-grade reading, all students in Texas, NAEP
1998: 261.2
2009: 260.4
2011: 261.4
From 1998 to 2009, the average score even ticked down a tad. On the national level, the average score in eighth-grade reading ticked up by just 1.6 points during that same period.

When it comes to eighth-grade reading, Ravitch’s narrow statement is accurate—a tiny bit generous, even. But if you disaggregate the data, a different picture emerges. For example, here are the scores of low-income black kids in Texas during these same years:
Eighth-grade reading, low-income black students in Texas, NAEP
1998: 239.7
2009: 244.3
2011: 247.8
If we apply that very rough rule of thumb, low-income black kids in Texas gained almost a year in eighth-grade reading during that 13-year period. In 2011, they outscored their peers nationwide by four points. (A similar pattern obtains in the case of low-income Hispanic kids.)

Back in the day, Ravitch would cherry-pick data on behalf of No Child Left Behind. Today, she cherry-picks data to attack the program—and people like Collins are happy to repeat her misleading claims. Even in eighth-grade reading, minority kids in Texas have been improving their test scores during this period. In math and fourth-grade reading, the score gains have been very large.

Ravitch’s conduct should be beneath our contempt. Collins’ intellectual sloth may be even worse.

Tomorrow, we will look in more detail at the score gains made by Hispanic kids in Texas over the past dozen years. Today, though, a word about the cruelty of Diane Ravitch’s conduct.

Let’s talk about eighth-grade reading: If black kids are doing better in Texas, and Hispanic kids are doing better in Texas, why did the overall score in Texas pretty much stay the same? Ravitch knows the answer, of course. But she won’t tell you.

Here's the answer: Each year, the Texas student population has a larger percentage of black, Hispanic and low-income kids. And at this point in our nation’s benighted history, black, Hispanic and low-income kids don’t score as well on educational tests as white kids and middle-class kids.

That’s true in every state in the union. It’s also true in Texas.

Even on eighth-grade reading, black and Hispanic kids are scoring better in Texas. In this one area, the overall score for the state has flagged because there is an increasing number of minority and low-income kids.

Perhaos you can see what this means: When Ravitch complains about that stagnating score, she is actually complaining about the increasing number of minority and low-income kids. It’s a cruel and ugly thing to do. It’s also deeply misleading.

It’s ugly because it keeps us from knowing about the very substantial gains which have been recorded by those minority kids. It gets uglier when that one (misleading) score is used to make us think that test scores in Texas have been stagnant as a general matter.

That impression is baldly untrue.

Go back and look at those eighth-grade math scores to see how dishonest this game is. As noted, Ravitch used to play these game of behalf of No Child Left Behind. In these matters, she now plays the bumptious Oliver Hardy to Collins’ hapless but trusting Stan Laurel.

Ravitch pushes the misleading pap; Stan Laurel rushes to type it on up. But Collins is supposed to be the top-shelf journalist here.

What kind of a nation lets a person like Collins wisecrack her way to fame and success on the backs of deserving kids all over the state of Texas? On the backs of their public school teachers? Tomorrow, we’ll look at more NAEP scores from the Lone Star State.

In the process, we’ll see what a massive act of fraud Gail Collins’ new book really is.

Tomorrow: Collins and the southern brown peril! Also, a boatload of data

6 comments:

  1. I don't have an exhaustive list of every Molly Ivins column, and I am not sure which one Collins is referring to. But I do remember in reading Dubya in 2000, Ivins gave Bush pretty good marks regarding Texas education. Again, it's been 10 years since I have read it, but the Education section of the book was clearly the positive aspect of Bush's record as governor. Not sure it is fair to let Gail Collins drag Molly Ivins down when she is no longer around to defend herself.

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  2. If you are going to launch a major character assault against Diane Ravitch, who along with others has written extensively using a wide variety of data claiming there was no such thing as the "Texas Miracle," you need a hell of a lot more than a possibly cherry-picked two sentences of quotations from a book written by Gail Collins (of all people). That is taking cherry-picking to a high art, and is about as intellectually dishonest as it gets. Is this a case of a blogger cherry-picking from quotations which themselves cherry-picked by the author of the book?

    Whether her critique is valid or not, it certainly hasn't been seriously undermined by this very limited information. If there is a broader case to be made against her, then make it. As it stands right now, this looks like a personal hatred (still another one, after Maddow, Marshall, O'Donnell, Walsh, Schultz, Digby, Hayes, etc., not to speak of the more obviously justified ones against Dowd, Matthews, Collins et al?) more than a principled defense of the integrity of progressive discourse.

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  3. I think urban legend (previous comment) has a good point, though some charges are overstated.

    Bob can clear much of this up by giving the nationwide NAEP scores for 1998, 2000, 2009 and 2011--the same years for which he provided Texas scores-- and explaining how these scores support his claim. There may still be disagreement, but everyone will see why he says "Ravitch's conduct should be beneath our contempt".

    I've wondered before how Ravitch switched sides so readily on NCLB, and I figure if Bob is singling her out he has good reason. But those numbers presumably aren't hard to dig up, so why didn't he include them?

    On urban legend's larger point, Ravitch has been active in combatting school reformers' lies, and it seems she's done a good job while sticking way closer to the truth than the reformers. So at some point you have to appreciate all the things Bob does right on this blog, but still wonder about his choice of targets *and* the way he discusses them.

    After all, I never saw any comments on this blog about Bill Maher's nasty video on Mississippi earlier this year. So purity doesn't seem an adequate explanation. Maybe it's a little more complicated: Bob's just as flawed as everyone else, but on the whole his blog is way better than most.

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    1. Bob's focus is to relate his "musings on the 'mainstream press corps' and the American discourse." Bill Maher is not a member of that group.

      Tweedle Dee

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  4. By the way, a quick Google search on "ravitch honest" yields some interesting results, for anyone who's so inclined.

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    1. The Anonymous IdiotsSeptember 21, 2012 at 6:32 PM

      Nah, we're happy to pretend it's all a personal issue of Somerby's.

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