Where does false belief come from: False belief tends to be rooted in constant repetition.
We thought of that fact when we read this letter in Saturday’s Washington Post:
LETTER TO THE WASHINGTON POST (3/16/13): The Common Core regimentation of kindergarten can only sadden those of us who were fortunate enough to have gone to school before World War II, when kindergarten was devoted entirely to socializing children. The only specific thing we ever learned was nursery rhymes. We spent our time playing games or listening to our teacher read to us. Now some poor little kids even have homework in kindergarten. This, I would submit, is likely to stunt their social and academic development.Doggone it! These darn kids today!
We never learned anything of substance until the first grade, but then we went on to learn substantially more than children seem to be learning today. There was no prejudice against memorization, now usually disparaged by preceding it with the pejorative “rote.” We acquired a great deal of knowledge this way. For example, we memorized multiplication tables. Now one sees young people using calculators to solve simple multiplication problems. We learned to think by using the tools of knowledge we acquired.
WLS, North Bethesda
The writer seems sure that his generation “learned substantially more than children seem to be learning today.” As they perused his letter, Post readers heard a very familiar old story repeated again.
In fact, there are few reliable educational data for the pre-World War II generation. But we will guess that very few readers of the Post have ever heard about the changes in reading and math scores over the past forty years.
Since the writer focused on math scores, let’s restrict ourselves to those. We’ll look at the “long-term trend assessments” of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). To review that report, just click here.
The NAEP’s math testing started in 1973; the most recent “long-term trend assessment” occurred in 2008. Over that 35-year span, math scores have gone through the roof among both white kids and black kids.
Very few people have ever heard that. On the other hand, we’re constantly exposed to hoary old tales like the tale which was told in that letter.
In American journalism, everybody swears by the NAEP—but nobody ever reports what NAEP data show. So here goes:
Among 9-year-olds, black students gained 37 points in math between 1973 and 2008. White students gained 27 points during that same period. Among 13-year-olds, the black score gain was even higher. The white score gain was smaller but was still substantial.
How large a gain in math achievement might such score gains indicate? In major newspapers, we are constantly told that ten points on the NAEP scale is equal to one academic year. But we’re only told that in contexts when that produces a negative outcome—for example, when we’re talking about the achievement gap which still exists between black and white kids.
No, Virginia! Almost surely, black 9-year-olds haven’t gained 3.7 years in math achievement since 1973. We always say you should regard that ten-point rule of thumb as a very rough measure.
But newspapers like the Washington Post never tire of letters like that, in which these kids today are mammoth embarrassing failures. Dumbness is built out of repetition—and when it comes to approved elite scripts, our world has no shortage of that.