Monthly Archives: December 2018

Direct Instruction Miracle? The Lewis Lemon Case

Back in February, I observed that Direct Instruction hadn’t failed because of teacher disdain, as Robert Pondiscio charged, but because educational leadership from superintendents on up through US senators had not only refused to support the program, but in some cases actively and systemically ripped out implementations that seemed to be successful.  As I said at the time, I considered it a real mystery.

So I dug deep into Zig Engelmann’s book, Teaching Needy Kids in Our Backwards System looking for an example of a success story I could independently verify. He goes on at some length about both San Diego and Baltimore schools, but not in any way I could pin down DI vs. Non-DI. Quite often Engelmann would cite a newspaper article as evidence.

The Ventura County Star carried an article on March 15, 2003, titled “Effective Reading Program Must Go”, which indicated that the only school in Ventura County and one of 109 in the state to receive a citation for achieving exemplary progress was forced to drop their [DI] program.

No mention of the school. Or the superintendent. Or the degree to which test scores increased. One gets the distinct impression that Zig….well, read about it in the paper. He uses virtually identical wording in this Edweek article. California keeps detailed, easily searchable records; with the name of the school, the specifics of the decision could be confirmed.

The exception is Lewis Lemon.LewisLemoncite

But then, as happened consistently through the decades, a new superintendent came in and demanded Lewis Lemon abandon Direct Instruction and adopt “balanced literacy”. The principal, Tiffany Parker, flatly refused. She was accused of cheating, so the students were tested again. They passed the new test.  The district actually had to give back Reading First federal funds because they dropped DI. Apparently, the district blamed the principal for informing the feds that the district was no longer using the program, and Parker was demoted. She sued, and settled.  If you google this, you’ll find a New York Times article, a New York Sun article, this Heartland article, and references to many Rockford Register Star articles by Carrie Watters, who from what I can tell now works at an Arizona paper. The Rockford Register Star archive goes back before 2003, and has other articles by Carrie Watters, but contains none of the many stories Watters did on the Lewis Lemon controversy. Even Joanne Jacobs’ blog entry on Rockford, “They Messed with Success” has disappeared, which had me really freaked until I learned she was had temporarily moved her archives.

The story made national headlines when the superintendent decided, in 2005, to force Lewis Lemon off of DI into “balanced literacy”, while the strong student performance of 2003 only got covered locally. The New York Times piece went into a bit more depth, mentioning that the fifth graders didn’t do as well. Also, the reports weren’t always specific. Was it math or reading? Or both? So I went digging for data.

If contemporaneous reports are scarce, the contemporaneous data survives. Illinois test scores comparing Lewis Lemon performance to the district and state by race are all online. Here they are, and please check my results:

2001–the year they implemented DI
2005–the year they were forced to discontinue DI

So now I’m going to go all graph heavy, like Spotted Toad. First up: the top level comparison of Lewis Lemon scores to the district and state level for both 3rd and 5th grade (reading down).


Note the big ol’ spike in 2003. Lewis Lemon 3rd graders had far more students meet or exceed standards than the district or state averages in that year. But then, third graders at Lewis Lemon outscored the district average  every year both before and after DI was implemented in  Notice, too, that the fifth grade scores aren’t nearly as impressive, but that both math and English show a spike in 2005, which is the year the third graders of 2003 would have been in fifth grade.  Then again, fifth graders had much better reading scores in 2002 than in any time after DI implementation.

Lewis Lemon officials blame the lower fifth grade reading scores on a less than perfect implementation, and students who were further behind. On the surface, this seems unlikely, given the high scores in 2002. But there may be other causes.

So I disaggregated, first by race. Here are black and white 3rd grade reading score scores compared at the school, district, and state level, broken down by achievement category.

Up first, 3rd grade blacks:


Now remember, this is Lemon Lewis black students compared to other black students only (not the entire population). Blue is Lemon Lewis, and the more blue to the right of each graph, the better Lewis Lemon is doing. 2003 is the year of the Big Score. The blue clearly moves to the right from 2002 to 2003, and stays there for two years. Then it shifts back.In 2003, black students  at Lewis Lemon met or exceeded standards at 3 to 4 times the numbers that district or state black students did.

Third grade reading, white students.


So this is interesting in a couple ways. First, it’s clear that in the pivotal year of 2003, white performance actually declined slightly. Fewer students failed to meet standards, but fewer students exceeded them. Not a lot. But there’s no tremendous spike in white student performance in 2003.

And then, something that has gone completely unmentioned: the white student population collapsed to below testing levels immediately after 2003. This explains some of the falloff of the graph above–if whites comprised a decent chunk of the high scores, then their disappearance would impact the overall “meets or exceeds”.

It’s not clear to me whether the DI implementation was reading only, or reading and math. The news accounts all focus on reading, but more than one account mentions improved math scores. So I’ll include them. Here’s third grade, African American.


Here, Lewis Lemon was scoring better than blacks in the district and state before the DI implementation. The blue still shifts right, but it’s not as dramatic. In 2003, virtually every student met or exceeded expectations, but in every other year, both before and after the DI implementation, they were still doing very well.

Now white 3rd grade math:


So in 2002 through 2003,  the school saw a good bunch of whites move from “meets” to “exceeds”. Unlike reading, third grade white performance saw a decent boost, but it started a year earlier. Whites at Lewis Lemon performed better than the district.

And now, the fifth grade. Reading, black fifth graders:


Scores actually declined in 2003. 2005, the year that the third graders from 2003 were in fifth grade, sees a slight improvement. But not much of one–more than half failed to meet standards.

Fifth grade whites, reading:

LewisLemonWhite5thReadingAgain, whites have their best year in 2002, and don’t show any particular spike. They also do better than black fifth graders (which is normal).

Fifth grade math:


Indifferent–except note the spike when the third graders of 2003 show up. It’s much more pronounced in math than it was in reading.

White fifth graders, to finish out.


So here’s one last way of looking at the data–compares blacks at Lewis Lemon to the whites at the school, district, and state level. Read down  on the left for 3rd and 5th reading, down on the right for 3rd and 5th math.


Once again a consistent pattern for  black third graders–big boost in 2003, slight fade in 2004, then tank. Black fifth graders see the boost exclusively in 2005, when the rock star 3rd grade class arrives,  holding on to their gains more so for math than for reading. Spike or not,  black third graders at Lewis Lemon do well in math compared to district whites from 2002-2005.

And here are the formal demographics reflecting the disappearance of white students from Lewis Lemon.


That’s a stark drop in a short time. 47% or so from 2001 to 2003, and 50% from 2003-2005.  It may have just been a drop in new students, but the third grade and fifth grade classes ran out of whites at the same time–I’d have expected the fifth grade cohort to have more white students for longer, in that case.

So restating the observations:

  • Lewis Lemon black 3rd grade scores are stupendously high in 2003. The accusations of cheating were groundless, unless the cheaters carefully waited two years to boost the same kids’ scores when they hit fifth grade.
  • However, black 3rd grade scores at Lewis Lemon were consistently higher than black scores district and state wide, before and after the program.
  • White students saw no real benefit from the new program.
  • Fifth graders, white or black, saw no real benefit from the program. The one strong category, fifth graders in 2005, is the boost of the third graders from 2003.


  • Is it possible that the 3rd grade class of 2003 was in some way extraordinary?
  • Were the white and black 3rd grade students practically (that is, for some legal reason) separated? Did the black students have a different teacher than the white students?
  • Did the white flight remove more high ability students? But even if it did, you’d expect the white kids to respond as well to DI as black kids,
  • Could parents “opt out” of DI?
  • Was the white flight out of Lewis Lemon exacerbated by the switch to DI? White students did not see the dramatic increases. Maybe they didn’t like the new regime?


Well, it’d need a better analyst than me to evaluate the data. And if there’d been solid analysis and reporting at the time, we might have a better idea why the black third graders did so well. Clearly, the curriculum is a possibility for the higher reading and math scores.  But I can’t explain why subsequent third grade classes fell off in performance. And I really can’t figure why the white kids didn’t do well, unless it’s for the same reason that white kids don’t do KIPP.

Did the meta-analysis  include Lewis Lemon?

What I don’t see is a miracle. What I don’t see is  conclusive test evidence showing an obvious incremental increase in test scores at every level, in every demographic, or in every race. Given the actual, honest to god data, not a compiled version of it, broken down by both race and grade and score category, is easily available, I hope someone can go even deeper into the data and see if they find explanations or patterns that aren’t available in this surface level display of data.

Here’s what else I don’t see: any reason whatsoever for that domineering control freak superintendent to rip the program out of Lewis Lemon. I’m not a fan of D, but reading about this blatant obliteration of something that worked for the kids has been depressing. Shame on the media for not digging deep at the time and finding out why.

So there you go. Real data on Direct Instruction. Have at it. Draw your own conclusions.

Happy New Year.

The Students of My Christmas Present


On time for once, he trudged into the class pulling a small pine tree behind him, a stand in his other hand. His chin was set. His curly hair braided in two plaits instead of flying all around his head added to his air of determination.

“It’s a tree.”

“I see that.”

“I wanna make it a Christmas tree. I want a Christmas tree with lights and decorations. I want to know what it looks like, and see it looking pretty every day.”

“So you’re taking it home?” He rolled his eyes in my direction, and I grinned apologetically. “Just checking. I guess it’s haram?”

“Extremely haram.” Faisal has most of the brains, four times the looks, but far less of the focus and drive of his older brother Abdul, now in his sophomore year of a top 50 university.  Not unknown to the administrators for all the wrong reasons, Faisal nonetheless has held onto a 3.5 GPA and, barring a last semester senior catastrophe, a decent chance at a good college.

And so I acquired a tree.  I showed Faisal how to put the tree in the stand, and we steal some water from a classmate.

“The vendor across the street gave it to me for free! He’s Yemeni, maybe that’s why.”

“No, I’d guess his generosity is due to the trunk bending sharply forward before it goes up.”

“Do you have the..the lights? The things you hang on them?”

“Ornaments.” I looked sideways.  “You are expecting me to decorate?”

Faisal has a charming grin.

The tree was an instant hit with all my students, even sitting in the corner unadorned, as it did for a week. Someone noticed that the tilt kept pulling it over, so we snuck outside and grabbed some painted tiles from the garden to weight the stand down.  Students volunteered from their water bottles to keep the tree hydrated. I took three days and a weekend to bring in lights (one day to find them in my garage, one to pull the box down, one to sit by the door to be forgotten, weekend to put them in my car so I couldn’t forget them), another two days to bring in the ornaments.  Then one day four top students finished a quiz early and I assigned them “light” duty.  I have a huge collection of gorgeous ornaments, some hand-blown glass, others hand  made, some just utterly beautiful, that they all oohed and ahed over. Faisal got to select his favorites.

The vocational cooking teacher teased me for taking nearly a week to complete the tree, but she readily agreed my end product was far superior to the one her student put up in 30 minutes–and I still had it done two weeks before break. Each morning, I turned the lights on to twinkle cheerily throughout the day. Very festive. I have these old plastic window coverings, one with Santa peeking around the corner, one with bells, and on impulse taped them over my door windows, where they hung, unmolested and unbroken, for the better part of two weeks, the kids carefully closing the door without tearing them.

Four of my nine ELD students are either Muslim or Hindu, and they haven’t been here that long. I carefully explained “secular” as opposed to “religious”, reassuring them that the tree was in celebration of the former.  The other half of the class is Catholic, either Guatemalan or Filipino, so were surprised to learn that not everyone celebrated Christmas as a religious event. My math students needed no clarification. Our school is wildly diverse, but that’s never stopped us from openly celebrating Christmas. The kids sell mistletoe messages and Christmas wreaths through December.

I regret not capturing a picture of the tree at school, completely decorated. I’ve learned that it made any number of appearances on Snapchat and Instagram, as my students bragged about their Chrismassy room.

My family of origin has always centered celebration on Christmas Eve. For 45 years, December 24th means cheese, beef, and occasionally chocolate fondue.  When we were kids, we’d then go to bed and have Christmas in the morning. But once we hit our teens and late 20s, we’d just open presents Christmas Eve so we could sleep in. As we grew up and moved out, we turned Christmas Day into family unit, keeping Christmas Eve for fondue with everyone.

My ex and I did Christmas big. We both loved the holiday, both bought each other lots of gifts, bought other family members multiple presents, shopped together and separately.  I love presents. But it wasn’t just the presents. We had a party once, I remember, and always made plans to see friends or do something fun.

We divorced when our son was not quite three. Because of our fondue tradition, my son always had Christmas Eve and morning with me, then went to my ex’s for two or three days. So on Christmas Day, I was alone.

I wasn’t miserable. I still loved the Christmas holiday, even if the 25th was always a bit of a letdown.My son and I would always decorate, get a tree.  We’d drive around looking at lights, go to see It’s A Wonderful Life or Wizard of Oz at the revival theater. But after the divorce, I always felt as if I were watching others experience Christmas, rather than experience it myself. A good chunk of my loss was simply the presents. I’m not materialistic the rest of the year, but by god I like people buying me presents at Christmas. However, the larger sense of loss was due to the realization that while my family of origin is big, my own family unit was just two–and when my son was gone, I didn’t really have a family unit at all. Just me.

The post-divorce change in Christmas was as nothing compared to its utter disappearance after my son finished high school.   Before Faisal dragged that little scrubby pine into my room, I hadn’t put up a tree since 2005. My son would still come to fondue, we’d still have Christmas morning, but without him around during the lead-in, what was the point?

That amputated Christmas threatened to disappear entirely once he moved three states away with his girlfriend and eventual wife. I once had fond notions of visiting for Christmas and opening presents with my grandkids, but my ex and I have spent no small amount of time commiserating with each other about the truth of the maxim “A son is a son till he takes a wife, a daughter’s a daughter the rest of her life”. I am truthfully not bitter about this, although I would certainly have it otherwise. My son has a woman he adores, an excellent job he enjoys, two beautiful, loving children , a mortgage, and a marriage certificate (acquired in that order).  I have done my job well. Peace.

My son’s absence forced me to stare down a (hopefully very long) telescope looking towards old age wondering was this it? I’m going to be someone who doesn’t do Christmas? Will I just start peeling away holidays as I have fewer people to celebrate with? I’m still blessed with both parents and family of origin nearby, but the disintegration of my Christmas Day–now getting perilously near why-bother status–made me realize that I had to change my mindset and perhaps my practice as I move towards a time when family will be fewer and farther away.

So for the past few years, I’ve made a point to experience Christmas as a family unit of one. A married couple I’m close to often invites me over for dinner, where I have a wonderful time even though, god help me, she’s a terrible cook. I can dress up a bit, talk to people, drink wine, and mark the year’s passing. Sometimes I’ll go see the holiday film at the revival theater. I often go to a Starbucks, write, talk to people at the store or on the street, seek out a neighbor to chat.

I resumed putting up outdoor lights three years ago, slowly finding uses for the big pile of lights I’d acquired earlier, and then actually buying more. I love Christmas lights so much. And they’re outdoors, so it felt more like contributing to  neighborhood spirit, rather than decorating an empty nest. For three years now, coming home and seeing the house all lit up has been most cheering.

While I expected my new “experience” of Christmas to be limited to outside lights and activities,  Faisal and my students have reminded me of all the happy ornaments locked away in my garage, sitting there unused and unenjoyed. I have treasured the shared cheer of my classroom tree. If I ended my Christmas tree practice because there was no one to share it with, well, then, why not continue to have a tree at school for the season? So I will. When I told my students, they applauded.

I wonder if Julia Ioffe can possibly conceive of a Muslim Palestinian American  begging for a free tree, lugging it into his most familiar teacher’s room, simply because he wants to be a part of one of the best holidays ever created. Would she demand that he, too, see Christmas entirely in terms of Christ? Could she not see it as assimilation of the best sort, appreciation for what American culture has to offer?

I received an additional gift of recognition, one that involves the second best Christmas Carol. The finest is, of course, the Alistair Sim version, which you should run out and see right away, before Christmas season officially ends. But Patrick Stewart’s version holds its own very well.

One scene in particular has always resonated with me, and only recently have I understood why.  I’ll try to show it with pictures, but the difference is easier to see in action. Here’s Ebenezer before his transformation, sitting in front of his fire:


His body language is all crunched up, his face is tense (granted, Marley’s said hello). Here he is after the three ghosts have visited:


He’s alone both times. But in the second, he’s not eating dinner, shoveling it down as a utilitarian act, scrunched and sullen. He’s just sitting, enjoying the fire, with a nice drink. He’s experiencing Christmas, alone and happy.

I wasn’t Scrooge before, or now. I’m just an introvert who is perfectly content to be alone most of the time, but didn’t know how to celebrate Christmas if I wasn’t part of a  big family unit. I faked it–and faked it well–for a long time, but I’m learning how to keep the day in the spirit I’d like.

Faisal’s determined desire for a Christmas tree, and my students’ happy participation in creating one,  had one more surprise in store for me. When school ended for the year, I carefully took off all the ornaments, wrapped them up and put them back in the box. Next was the lights..but I stopped. I’d planned to put the tree in the dumpster but instead wrapped up the cords and carried the whole tree, lights and all, to the front seat of my car. I only felt a little bit silly.TreeatHome

I’m looking at it now, shining brightly in the front window. Maybe next year I’ll have two trees–one for school, one for home.

This year my friends had to delay their Christmas dinner until Thursday. So my brother and I ate standing rib roast, which cooked to rare perfection, and I made lemon meringue pie for dessert.  I’ll be rewarding myself with a hot toddy (Makers Mark) when I finish this.

I always give thanks for my students, past and present, and am grateful I’ve got many more students to enjoy in years to come. But this year, to students present, I thank you all for showing me how to bring back one more piece of my favorite holiday.

Merry Christmas.




Making Rob Long Uncomfortable

(Note: This is in the context of my multi-chaptered review of The Case Against Education, particularly the last, but I think it stands alone.)

I’m a big Rob Long fan; I listen to both his Ricochet  and GLoP podcasts. I’ve even subscribed to Richochet, and you should, too. I am not a Heather MacDonald fan, for reasons that puzzle others. But I like Long/Lileks/Robinson more than I don’t like her, so I was listening to their conversation a while back.

The three hosts were completely on board as Heather excoriated the college campus craziness documented in her new book. You can practically hear them nodding with approval as she outlines the various issues: the outraged feminist wars, the soft and whiny college students, the transgender insanities.

And then Heather turned the same withering sarcasm to race, talking about the delusional fools who think that African American disparities in college are due to racism as opposed to their low academic achievement….



I laughed and laughed.

You could practically hear Rob’s toenails shrieking against the tiles as he braked to a stop.  This was not the conversation he’d signed up for. He was there to lightly mock feminists and social justice nuts, not crack witty, on-the-nose jokes with Heather about the racial skills deficit.

Cognitive dissonance, anyone?

It runs all through the political and intellectual class, particularly on the right. So, for example, Charles Murray is a great social scientist and The Bell Curve an important work  (I agree!)–but  let’s blame crap teachers and low standards for black academic underperformance.

Recently, Megan McArdle added her voice to John McWhorter in calling for an end to research on race and IQ. This appears to be the new “informed right” position: if you’ve spent any time actually reading about race and IQ, it’s clear that only bad news awaits further research. So ban it.

Meanwhile, on the subject of recent campus craziness, Megan thinks that Evelyn Beatrice Hall’s formulation is one of “humanity’s noblest inventions” and John McWhorter routinely denounces the safe-space rhetoric on college campuses as absurd and “unhelpful”. Both of them are appalled at the idea that college students would want to shut down conversations they don’t like.

They’re reactionary fascists, you’re unreasonably censorious, I’m judicious in setting limits.

Ever notice how the same people who praise Caplan’s idea of restricting college are also those singing songs of praise about KIPP and “no excuses” charters in general–for sending more poor urban kids of color to college?

KIPP schools put their kids through hours and hours more school every week, all to get just 45% of them to graduate college “ten or more years” after 8th grade–that is, 6 or more years of college.

They’re the education blob who ignore reality to keep spending taxpayer dollars, you’re unduly optimistic about college readiness, I’m all for unqualified black kids going to college if it’s not unionized teachers sending them there.

I read many reviewers of The Case Against Education on the right or the intellectually honest left who discussed the book without ever observing the obvious implications of Caplan’s plan to cut back on college attendance. This perplexes me. I actually know a reviewer who gave a great analysis without mentioning race. I asked him why the omission. He replied the idea was  “far-fetched enough that the racial implications are a ‘cross that bridge when we come to it’ side issue.”

That sounds amazingly on point. Yeah, sure, Caplan’s proposal is pie in the sky, but it’s a great idea, you know? Interesting. Challenging. Controversial. Let’s engage it. Play with it. Not get into the nitty gritty details.

Of course, everyone’s totally into the nitty gritty when castigating the here and now.

“Failing schools” is an expression with bipartisan support–and the schools are always failing on the count of race. KIPP’s “Success for All” or Eva’s “Success” Academies are clearly talking about success by race. All the praise for Wendy Kopp giving Teach for America a chance to “expand opportunity” for kids is, again, talking about opportunities for black and Hispanic kids–and, by the way, pretty sure those opportunities include college. No Child Left Behind demanded that test scores be disaggregated by race, and only if all students of all racial and income populations achieved at the same rate could schools get out of academic probation. States dumped their test score standards and still couldn’t avoid putting all their schools in probation status, thus creating the need for waivers that allowed everyone to ignore the racial gaps while they Raced to the Top.

I don’t doubt the sincerity of my reviewer buddy. But come on. All the pro-charter, pro-voucher, anti-union policy wonks on the right are all about race when they can use it to beat teachers over the head. The nation itself defines its success in education almost entirely on how well it educates kids by race. But a guy writes a book proposing to restrict access to college and most public schools by choking off funding in ways that would be catastrophic to African Americans but hey, it’s just spitballing. No need to mention race.

Policy analysis a la Wimpy: I’ll gladly talk about race in today’s education if you let me ignore race in the education of tomorrow.

But despite my dismay, that is definitely how it goes. Everyone suffers from educational romanticism, as Charles Murray puts it:

Educational romantics of the Left focus on race, class, and gender. It is children of color, children of poor parents, and girls whose performance is artificially depressed, and their academic achievement will blossom as soon as they are liberated from the racism, classism, and sexism embedded in American education. Those of the Right see public education as an ineffectual monopoly, and think that educational achievement will blossom when school choice liberates children from politically correct curricula and obdurate teachers’ unions.

In public discourse, the leading symptom of educational romanticism is silence on the role of intellectual limits even when the topic screams for their discussion.

This silence from those who know better leaves the rest of the talking class, particularly those on the right, the ones who aren’t into policy, utterly unprepared for a serious discussion. They get very, er, uncomfortable with any mention of black underperformance that isn’t a de rigeur nod to shit teachers and corrupt schools. They haven’t really thought about it much or read the literature, but they quite like the basic GOP talking points (bad unions, bad! Charters! Choice!) and would much rather no one take away their comfort chew toys.

Fair to say I’d make Rob Long uncomfortable.

Notice that I did not (and do not) hold black culture  at fault for these academic results. As I mentioned once long ago when looking at the black/white gap in Praxis scores (teacher credential tests):

  • The white Millennial bonghitter with a 1.2 GPA who teaches sixth grade science after his parents booted him out of the basement ties the freshly-pressed hardworking black track star with a 3.8 GPA teaching special ed.*
  • The goofball wannabe [white] manicurist who loafed through Podunk U and went into teaching kindergarten after the tenth of her problematic boyfriends dumped her outscores the idealistic black welfare daughter success story on a full scholarship to Harvard who went into teaching sixth grade English to “give back” to her community.

Pace JD Vance, it ain’t culture. Your Middletown classmates who ended up dead or in dead-end jobs almost certainly outscored the rich black kids in, I don’t know, Delaware County, or wherever the wealthy black families live in Ohio.

As I’ve written before, all those placing great hope in KIPP are missing the big picture: the kids who need the hours of extra education and the forced discipline of No Excuses to get anywhere near 8th grade ability by 8th grade is simply not the same as the intellect that can eat Crispy Cocoa Puffs every day while watching TV or playing video games and bet at the 8th grade level by 4th grade.

MacDonald herself blames culture. In the podcast, she responded to Long’s plea with the offer of a thought experiment. If black kids have the same level of school attendance, same level of homework completion, and in ten years they still have lower achievement, she says, then and only then she’ll consider racism. Apparently MacDonald isn’t aware of the thought experiment known as Cambodians, Laotians, and Hmong who have the same dedication to education but wildly different academic results and graduation rates.

And given the frequency with which poor white kids outperform wealthier black kids, often at the same schools, it’s hard to reasonably argue that schools themselves are the result of black underperformance. Which doesn’t stop many people from unreasonably arguing it, of course.

What do I blame?


Look, it’s not a matter of “blame”.

But that’s an answer that gets one into hot water. People who talk about the test score gap without fingering responsibility–worse, who argue against the usual culprits–are giving the impression that there’s nothing to fix. Which isn’t true, but it’s closer to true than any hope of closing the racial achievement gap.

The discomfort has wasted billions to no real avail. Despite the demands to increase college readiness, we are sending far more students to college who are less prepared than ever. Colleges have responded not by tightening standards, but by ending them, giving college credit for classes teaching middle school skills. Employers routinely call for more unskilled immigrants to take on the tasks  “Americans won’t do” when in fact they mean jobs that won’t pay enough for Americans to do, and thus create more low-skilled populations we can let down in future generations–populations that are beginning to outnumber American blacks of slave ancestry, the people to whom America owes a great debt.

And yet. I can think of so many ways that accepting performance gaps and modifying education policy could create more problems–like, say, Bryan Caplan’s notion to end public education.

So it goes.  Bryan Caplan gets a book deal and fame for seriously arguing in favor of a policy that would block most blacks and many Hispanics from all advanced education. I’m anonymous, unpaid, and unbook-dealed, writing in favor of continuing public education for all. But Caplan ignores race, and I’m blunt about black academic results while refusing to blame acceptable scapegoats.

Despite his pose as a controversial intellectual, Caplan will never make Rob Long uncomfortable.

I wish I knew how to distill all this into something pithy. But I’m bottom up, not top down. Or is it the other way round?

The Case Against The Case Against Education: Average Was Always Over.

Part 5. (Parts onetwo, and three, and four.)

In his book, Caplan goes on at great length about what level of academic achievement predicts probability of success in attaining a credential.  But he complete ignores the fact that the probability of low academic achievement is skewed based on demographic attributes. While it’s fashionable these days to pretend that income is the great demographic divider, the mother of all disaggregations in America is race.

Let’s examine Caplan’s discussion of race in educational achievement. Go get your copy of Case Against Education and check the index. I’ll wait.


Caplan mentions authors named “Black” about as often as he mentions blacks as a demographic category,  which he does three times .

What about Hispanics? No one has the last name “Hispanic”, or “Mexican” or “Puerto Rico”, much less “Dominican” or “Salvadoran”, so the sum total of their mention is uno.

And mind you, I mean mentions.  At no point does Caplan do anything so basic as discuss the  academic performance of different demographic categories. Blacks and Hispanics make a brief appearance in name only during the Griggs discussion and never show up again.

How do you write a book that argues for draconian cuts in our education system—and not discuss race?

Education policy in America is obsessed with race. Name a single problem in education and it’s a mortal lock that it was either caused by the achievement gap or caused by a policy put in place to end the achievement gap. Any attempts to solve educational challenges will be sued out of existence, or fail, or simply ignored to death because of its impact on the racial achievement gap.

But Caplan never once explores whether the implications of his proposals might unduly affect certain demographics. He simply uses median scores and percentages for the overall population. I am not a huge fan of Tyler Cowen’s dystopic fantasies but in education, there’s no doubt that average is over and has been for years. Averages hide too much. In Caplan’s book, averages hide the implications of his “ability archetypes”:


Caplan advises people to use “ability archetypes” to ensure they are realistic about their goals:


Let’s consider the racial implications of his advice.  Once again, we’ll use the  NAAL report that Caplan discarded after culling a few shallow data points.

Here’s the results broken down by race in the four ability categories, from Below Basic to Proficient, for Prose and Document. For example, white comprise 70% of the population and 7% of the tested white population scored below basic in the Prose category.  So 4.9% of the tested population was white and below basic in Prose.  White scores are in gray, black scores in blue.


(I’ve been working on this forever, and just now noticed I didn’t put the percentage of each race’s contribution to each category. Sigh.)

Asian and Hispanic results are skewed by the conflation of immigrant and native results.  But it’s instantly obvious that blacks, who were only 12% of the tested population, contribute far more to the lower categories and are almost non-existent in the skill categories Caplan considers suitable for college.

The columns in the graph below list the median score by race in each education category. The horizontal lines are the overall population percentiles. So 14% got Below Basic, while “Basic” scores went from the 14th to 44th, Intermediate from 44th to 85th, and Proficient above that. The “Excellent”, “Good”, “Fair”, and “Poor” classifications are those that Caplan defined and are at (very roughly) the corresponding percentile location. (“Good” is a bit low, I think.)

naal2003raceandedNotice that white high schoolers and high school graduates have roughly the same scores as blacks with 4 year degrees or more. This is a very consistent finding in most test score data.

Caplan argues that only students from the Excellent or Good categories should invest in college. The NAAL report finds that only two percent of blacks read at proficient levels,  31% score at the intermediate level.  If blacks or colleges took Caplan’s directive and only went to college with that qualification (which is actually broader than Caplan would like) just 4% of the overall population would be black college graduates.

NAAL doesn’t disaggregate by race, education, and performance category. But another survey, done three years later, gives us some insight: The Literacy of America’s College Students. This literacy survey tested 25 randomly selected students from each of over 1800 universities.

This survey uses the same assessment as NAAL, and the same categories, to assess  college students in their last semester of an AA or BA degree. Again, I’m restricting the comparison  to blacks and whites.

First, I benchmarked the literacy data to the NAAL data for college graduates. 2006colllitmedian

The literacy survey data is much higher for blacks than the NAAL data, particularly for black AA holders. But it’s pretty close for BA holders. Moreover, standards change over time so it’s at least possible that looking at brand new AA degrees would differ from the overall population.

Here’s the breakdown by score category. Black AA and BA candidates are on the left, whites on the right. Blue and green are intermediate and proficient categories. 2006colllitmedian

And consistent with the first graph, these results seem quite high for African Americans. Only 5% of  blacks in 4 year schools scored below basic?  Blacks in 2 year colleges had no below-basic scorers? Really?

Still, this is fine for my purposes. 1 in 4 blacks about to get a BA had basic or lower reading scores, while less than 1 in 40 whites had the same low ability.

Caplan asserts “we” should  be shocked that  “under a third” of those with a BA or higher achieve Proficient levels in numeracy and literacy.  But close to half of the white college BA holders achieved Proficient levels in the three categories  ( 42%, 45%, and 40%).  The same black proficiency scores are 16%, 17%, and 5%.

Whites are achieving considerably higher than the results Caplan sniffs at, while black scores are far worse than “under a third” but rather “under a fifth”. Moreover, Caplan argues that he’s giving this advice to prevent low-skilled people from failing in college–but clearly, these blacks are about to graduate and made it through with skills he deems too low to succeed.

The college graduate data above would almost certainly be replicated in all the other education categories. Whatever Americans Caplan decries as low-skilled and incapable of succeeding in education, rest assured that he’s skewering a group that’s considerably more African American than the overall population.

Remember, too, that Caplan regularly dismisses the idea that our education system might be able to improve results.  He spent an hour debating Ric Hanushek arguing this very point.

But NAAL results over time (below) suggest that our k-12 system has improved results for African Americans. Asterisked scores indicate significant improvement. Blacks saw significant improvement in all three areas. (note again Hispanic performance declined rather spectacularly, thanks to increased immigration)


What educational categories saw the most black improvement?


Well, hey now. Look at that. The blacks that graduated (or even dropped out!) of high school in the 10 years previous saw significant improvement in prose and quantitative skills.

Black proficiency scores on the NAAL survey are extremely low. But they have improved.

Caplan’s prescriptions run into all sorts of problems when evaluating black academic performance. If Caplan is correct about the skills needed for college, then why is the black college graduate average below the level that Caplan declares essential for college success? Certainly, as I’ve observed, colleges are lowering standards (for all admissions as well as blacks in particular). But while the average earnings of black college graduates are less than those of whites, black earnings increase with education nonetheless. So should they invest in more education even though they don’t meet Caplan’s criteria?

I pointed this out to Caplan on Twitter, and  he observed that the ethnic group improvements were marginal  and that the absolute level of basic skills were “terrible”. Which suggests he was aware of the ethnic group differences and just decided not to mention them.

Breaking down test scores by race can be incredibly depressing. No one likes to do it. But Caplan’s failure to include this information is simply irresponsible.

Caplan argues that people outside the top 30% of academic achievement should stop investing in school, the sooner the better. He sees this as both selfishly correct and also the correct government policy, so he thinks all funding for education past minimal skills should end. Those who are worth further investment can justify the expense to a bank or a parent. Meanwhile, we should end the child labor laws so that the very lowest academic achievers can get to work as soon as it becomes a waste of time to educate them.

Applying his policies to black Americans, around 25 percent would be in need of those changed labor laws, because Caplan wouldn’t spend a penny to educate them.

In his conversation with Hanushek, Caplan proposes giving low-skilled kids “more realistic” careers–the example being “plumber”, of course. Like most elites, Caplan uses  “plumber” as a low-skilled proxy when in fact the occupation is one of the more cognitively complex of blue collar jobs. But I think his focus on the job is also a tactical choice. “Plumber” sounds good, like a meaningful career. You can be self-employed or build a business.

Imagine telling a kid his best option is “janitor”. Now imagine telling a poor black kid his best option is “janitor”. Then imagine telling about 1 in 4 black kids that yeah, “janitors” where it’s at for them.

If you can’t imagine doing that, then don’t write a book arguing that Americans get too much education.

When people talk about the “bad old days” of American education, they are referring to the era when people did exactly what Caplan advises. School counselors looked at the students’ test scores and gave them a list of possible careers. White kids had higher scores and were advised to go to college. Black kids had lower scores and were advised to go to factories or custodial work. For a guy who spent several pages on the likelihood of Griggs lawsuits, Caplan doesn’t seem to have spent a single second looking at the case history of school district consent decrees.

But then again the kicker: Caplan wants open borders. So in Caplan’s ideal future, all those  teenagers of all races that have been kicked out of school because they aren’t worth educating  will be  competing for jobs and housing with millions or more adults from third world countries.

Earlier, I wrote:

I’ve been struggling with the best way to take on Bryan Caplan’s woefully simplistic argument about the uselessness of education. What do you do when someone with a much bigger megaphone takes up a position similar to one you hold–but does it with lousy data and specious reasoning, promoting the utterly wrong approach in seeming ignorance about the consequences?

Nowhere is this dilemma clearer than in Caplan’s utter refusal to engage with the racial implications of his proposals. I, too, want fewer people in college. The best way to keep unqualified people from investing in college is to make work worthwhile. But Caplan wants to devalue work to the point of worthlessness through open borders, all the while denying even the possibility of education to those who can’t afford it.

Caplan complains that no proponents of public education have seriously engaged with his book. That’s because no one has observed, in so many words,  “Bryan Caplan thinks most blacks shouldn’t go to college because they’ll fail. He thinks state funded education is a waste of time. Kids whose parents can’t afford education should have to be smart enough to get a scholarship.”

That’ll get him some engagement. But then, he knows that.

Caplan is often rather smug about his media popularity. “Steve Sailer’s policy views are much closer to the typical American’s than mine.  Compared to me, he’s virtually normal.  But the mainstream media is very sweet to me, and treats Steve like a pariah.  I have to admit, it’s bizarre.”

It’s not bizarre at all. Honesty usually goes unrewarded.