Special report: Snorter McWhorter!

PART 3—SHOW US THE MIRACLE: On its face, John McWhorter’s claim was a bit hard to believe. But his piece appeared in The New Republic, one of our most famous “liberal” journals—and McWhorter was a Berkeley professor, albeit a linguistics prof. What had McWhorter so strikingly claimed? Here it is, in shortened form (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/3/09). Yes, he actually said it:

Shorter McWhorter: We’ve always known how to erase the achievement gap. We just haven’t chosen to do it.

Yikes! According to McWhorter, the education world has known, since the late 1960s, that an instructional program named Direct Instruction (DI) can wipe away the achievement gap! Yet over the course of the past four decades, dumbkopfs in the public schools have cruelly refused to use it! If low-income preschoolers are taught with DI, they will enter kindergarten reading on second-grade level, he seemed to say—quite remarkably. So snorted the Berkeley professor, in the well-known liberal journal. Along the way, McWhorter linked to evidence drawn from three cities—Baltimore, Houston and Milwaukee. He mentioned Richmond as well.

We knew very little about DI, and we’re willing to believe that almost anything’s possible. Unfortunately, when we spent time clicking McWhorter’s links, we found the kind of pure/perfect bull-roar that has been so common, for so many years, when this nation’s major news orgs pretend to discuss low-income schools. Why did TNR wave this snorting piece into print? We don’t have the slightest idea. But here’s the first thing we observed when we checked the professor’s work:

McWhorter’s first link, in paragraph 5, takes readers to a detailed recent piece in the conservative-leaning City Journal (published by the Manhattan Institute). In his piece, Shepard Barbash discusses the promise and pitfalls of expanded preschool instruction. Soon, he too is praising Direct Instruction—and he describes a Baltimore school where the program is currently used. For the record, we’d guess that this is an excellent school—that its children are lucky to go there:

BARBASH (9/08): One site that has endured is Hampstead Hill Academy, a public charter school (pre-K to grade 8) operated by the Baltimore Curriculum Project, a nonprofit organization specializing in Direct Instruction. Stephanie Brown has taught DI math, reading, and language curricula there for ten years, the last five in all-day, state-funded pre-K. Eighty percent of her students come from poor homes, more than half are African-American or Latino, and one-third are immigrants still learning English. Many arrive not knowing how to hold a pair of scissors, use pronouns, speak in complete sentences, or follow simple directions. By the end of the school year, they have learned to sort objects into classes, identify opposites, recognize logical absurdities, use synonyms and if/then statements, create definitions for objects, read simple sentences, and do simple addition problems.

Brown breaks the rules of her profession. In the first months of school, she teaches her four-year-olds to sit at desks, work independently on exercises with pencil and paper, and concentrate for up to 30 minutes at a stretch (twice each morning) as she delivers the fast-paced DI lessons, one each for language and math. During DI time she breaks the class into three groups, arranged by skill level, to teach them more efficiently. She corrects mistakes quickly, firmly, and consistently.

“Read this,” Brown says, pointing at the “+2” written on the blackboard. “Everyone, get ready”…

Barbash goes on to offer a detailed description of Brown’s DI lessons. Barbash believes that DI (and DI-type programs) represent the way to go in preschool education. For ourselves, we think such important claims deserve to be carefully assessed. Beyond that, we assume Brown is a superlative teacher—that her children are lucky to have her.

That said, McWhorter had made remarkable claims about DI’s effects. “[A] solution for the reading gap was discovered four decades ago” he wrote, snorting at ongoing efforts in New York City’s schools to deal with this ongoing problem. (For the record: NAEP data suggest the gap is substantially smaller than it was four decades ago.) What type of miracle does DI deliver? In his most eye-popping passage, McWhorter suggests that preschoolers taught with DI will parade into kindergarten reading on second-grade level! Direct Instruction is “the answer to the problems people at forums like these find so challenging,” he snorts, referring to an education forum he attended in Gotham. And he mocks the efforts of those teachers and administrators who keep pretending that we don’t know how to erase the gap. (“It’s as if you’re listening to people discuss the merits of moving a two-ton load of grain into a barn by spreading the ground between the load and the barn with cooking grease and heaving-ho.”)

In his own more thoughtful piece, Barbash devotes a lot of space to Hampstead Hill, the Baltimore school which has used DI in preschool for (it seems) ten years. But Snorter McWhorter had seemed to say that DI offers miracle cures. We decided to look at that school’s test scores to see if this cure has presented.

Let’s say it again: Based on all we know about it, we’d guess that Hampstead Hill Academy is a very good school whose children are lucky to go there. But to our eye, nothing in the school’s current test scores suggests that a miracle cure has arrived after ten years of DI. In fairness, Barbash only says that Hampstead Hill uses DI in its pre-school; it’s possible that miracles happen at that level, then get washed away in the later years. (Barbash doesn’t say whether the school uses DI in later grades.) But according to current Maryland test scores, Hampstead Hill’s black and Hispanic kids tend to perform somewhat less well than blacks and Hispanics in the state of Maryland as a whole—and Maryland’s white students do outperform the state’s black and Hispanic kids. Let’s cherry-pick fifth grade reading, for instance. Here you see percentages of those who failed to pass the state’s reading test last year—of those scoring below proficient:

Percentage below proficient, fifth-graders, Maryland reading test, 2008:
Hampstead Hill, Hispanics: 22.2 percent
Maryland, statewide, Hispanics: 17.6 percent
Maryland, statewide, whites: 6.9 percent

Here we see similar data for black kids:

Percentage below proficient, fifth-graders, Maryland reading test, 2008:
Hampstead Hill, blacks: 30.8 percent
Maryland, statewide, blacks: 21.6 percent
Maryland, statewide, whites: 6.9 percent

You can’t learn much from Hampstead Hill’s data; we’re dealing with very small numbers here, and Hampstead Hill’s kids are lower-income than those in the state as a whole. But it doesn’t seem that a miracle, of the kind described, has actually occurred at this school—a school we would guess is superb. For the past ten years, have kids been entering this school’s kindergarten reading on the second grade level? We would guess that they have not. But that eye-catching image gave McWhorter’s snorts their biggest pop.

From what we’ve read about Hampstead Hill, we’d assume that it’s an excellent school; we think Barbash’s description of Stephanie Brown’s work with her preschool kids is inspiring. But McWhorter made extravagant, snorting claims—and The New Republic put them in print. And uh-oh! When we looked at the rest of McWhorter’s “evidence,” we thought his piece looked a good deal worse.

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