Part 1—Who is Joe Nocera: In this morning’s New York Times, Joe Nocera talks about schools. More specifically, he talks about the teachers strike in Chicago.
Joe Nocera is a columnist for our nation’s newspaper of record. He writes two columns per week.
You’d almost think a person like that would have to know whereof he speaks. But this morning, as he ends his column, Nocera pens a familiar groaner.
What he implies is extremely familiar. But then too, as everyone knows, what he implies is wrong:
NOCERA (9/11/12): What is frustrating about this strike, with its powerful national undercurrents, is that it is unlikely to change much. What both sides are doing is completely understandable. Like unions everywhere, the Chicago Teachers Union is trying to hold on to what it has, while management is trying to impose new work rules. However it is settled, teachers will still feel under assault, while reformers will continue to feel as if the union is the enemy. It’s a little like the battles in the 1970s and 1980s between unions and industry, with the two sides fighting each other so fiercely that neither noticed that imports were on the rise and globalization was making their squabbles irrelevant.Are we “in the midst of an education crisis?” There’s no objective way to answer such a question. But if we're in the midst of a crisis, that crisis has transpired all through Nocera's lifetime and back into our earliest history.
Students in other countries now regularly outperform American students. We are truly in the midst of an education crisis—one that won’t be solved until we completely rethink the way we offer public education. For starters, teachers and school administrators need to start working together instead of fighting each other. What the strike in Chicago mainly illustrates is how far we are from that goal.
At the start of that highlighted statement, Nocera implies that we are losing ground compared to other nations, whose students “now” outperform our students.
As everyone knows, that isn’t true—but Nocera doesn’t seem to know! He types a familiar talking-point—and earlier, he had typed this:
NOCERA: As regular readers know, I have been somewhat skeptical of the [education] reform movement. For those disadvantaged students who get into a good charter school or land in a program that can help them succeed, that’s wonderful. In the grand scheme of things, though, the number of students who get that kind of attention is small. There really isn’t much evidence that introducing choice and competition—an important rationale for charter schools—has forced the big-city public schools to improve. Until somebody figures out how to create reforms that work for all, and not just the lucky few, American public education will continue to suffer. The reform movement hasn’t come close to that goal.From that gloomy passage, a New York Times reader may get the idea that there “really isn’t much evidence” that big-city schools have improved.
As everyone knows, that pretty much isn’t exactly the case. But it fits the party line, a line Nocera keeps expounding as he types on:
NOCERA (continuing directly): On the other hand, the status quo, which is what the Chicago teachers want, is clearly unacceptable. In Chicago, about 60 percent of public school students graduate from high school. The percentage who graduate from college before the age of 25 is appalling: somewhere around 6 percent. In a meeting with Emanuel, according to Jonathan Alter, who profiled the mayor for The Atlantic earlier this year, Lewis “derided the longer day as ‘baby-sitting and warehousing.’ ” On Sunday night, when she announced that the teachers were going on strike, [Chicago teachers union president Karen] Lewis said that teachers should not be at risk of losing their jobs over new evaluations that rely heavily on standardized test scores, which don’t account for outside factors like poverty and homelessness. Reformers have long complained that teachers’ unions too often use poverty as an excuse for poor performance. Lewis’s remarks would seem to justify that complaint.In fact, those new evaluations do account for outside factors like poverty. But Nocera’s presentation here is so jumbled it would take a long time to unpack.
Yesterday, we brushed past Alter in New York City’s Penn Station; he was gone, rushing to catch a train, before we could speak. Personally, we like Alter. But he too is inclined to recite the party line on these topics—a party line which is connected, in part, to New York City’s billionaire mayor, one of Alter’s current employers through Bloomberg News.
Let’s return to our basic point:
Everybody knows certain things—unless they read the New York Times, which many people do. Consider a few examples of knowledge which didn't appear in Nocera's column:
Despite what Nocera says or implies or seems to imply, everyone knows that American students never did well on international tests. Those “students in other countries” always outperformed our students.
Everyone knows that American students have been gaining ground in recent years on international tests.
And everyone knows something else: Everyone knows that reading and math scores have shown strong improvements on our most reliable domestic testing program, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which tests fourth- and eighth-graders. Everyone knows that these improvements have been seen among black kids and Hispanic kids, and in our big-city schools.
Everyone knows that black fourth-graders now score higher in math than white fourth-graders did when Bill Clinton took office. Unless something is terribly wrong with those data, that represents remarkable progress—unless you read the New York Times, where none of this shit has occurred.
How does a person get to be like Joe Nocera? He writes for our famous paper of record—and this morning, he seems to have no idea what he’s talking about. He says and suggests various things which aren’t true. But his suggestions neatly adhere to a script, a script which is favored by powerful elements within the world which feeds him.
Does Nocera know about those NAEP data? Does he know the truth about international tests? You’d think he would have to know such facts; he writes for the New York Times, after all.
But if you thought that, you’d be wrong.
Our national journalists often seem like a very strange cult—almost like an alien life-form. They always seem to know their scripts.
Often, they seem to know little else.
“Who are those guys?” Paul Newman once asked. His question often pops into our head when we review the work of the Nocera gang.
All week long, we’ll be asking a question: Who the Sam Hill are these people? Where do they come from? Are they flesh of the earth?
Who the f*ck are these guys?
Tomorrow: Who the Sam Hill is Ruth Marcus?
Coming: Gail Collins, Mark Leibovich