MEDIOCRITY ALL THE WAY UP: Mehta sees mediocrity!

MONDAY, APRIL 15, 2013

Part 1—We see something worse: Jal Mehta, an assistant professor at Harvard, sees mediocrity all around him.

More specifically, he sees mediocrity in a predictable place—among America’s teachers. For our previous post, click this.

On Saturday, the New York Times granted a remarkable 1752 words to the 36-year whiz from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Speaking of world-class mediocrity, Mehta began his lengthy remarks in a thoroughly hackneyed place:
MEHTA (4/13/13): In April 1983, a federal commission warned in a famous report, “A Nation at Risk,” that American education was a “rising tide of mediocrity.” The alarm it sounded about declining competitiveness touched off a tidal wave of reforms: state standards, charter schools, alternative teacher-certification programs, more money, more test-based “accountability” and, since 2001, two big federal programs, No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top.

But while there have been pockets of improvement, particularly among children in elementary school, America’s overall performance in K-12 education remains stubbornly mediocre.
As always, A Nation of Risk! It’s where these savants always start!

That said, how about it? Does America’s performance in K-12 education remain medicore? Has it been stubbornly so?

That first claim is a matter of judgment. According to the New York Times, there are 3 million teachers in the United States in elementary and middle schools alone.

We’ll guess that quite a few of those teachers could be judged “mediocre.” We will guess that more than a few may be somewhat worse.

That said, mediocrity seems to be present in other professions, including whatever profession Mehta inhabits.

Before we’re done this week, we’ll show you where American “mediocrity” stood in 1983, the year Mehta chose as the baseline for his gloomy assertion. We’ll take our data from the domestic testing program Mehta chose as his source—the program from which he obtained the blizzard of cherry-picked facts with which he defines our problem.

It would be fair to say that Mehta is a kinder, gentler version of Michelle Rhee, another ambitious young climber who headed off to Harvard, then used that school’s famous degree to bolster her now-famous complaints about the nation’s teachers.

Quite often, Rhee has been quite nasty; to his credit, Mehta seems to be cut from a different cloth. But at the end of his lengthy piece, he dreams the dream that all our climbers know they must dream when they discuss this topic:
MEHTA: The changes needed to professionalize American education won’t be easy. They will require money, political will and the audacity to imagine that teaching could be a profession on a par with fields like law and medicine. But failure to change will be more costly—we could look up in another 30 years and find ourselves, once again, no better off than we are today. Several of today’s top performers, like South Korea, Finland and Singapore, moved to the top of the charts in one generation. Real change in America is possible, but only if we stop tinkering at the margins.
Mehta wants to “professionalize American education.” In some sense, that may be a fine idea, but we will extend his dream:

We would like to professionalize education professors at Harvard! In another improbable dream, we would like to professionalize the work you encounter in the New York Times.

“Mediocre” was one of the kinder terms which entered our head as we read Mehta’s column. Other unflattering terms danced about: Incompetent; grossly misleading and sometimes false; a borderline act of fraud.

On the one hand, Mehta’s piece is quite ordinary. It argues a line about teachers and schools these kids can recite in their sleep.

On the other hand, his piece strikes us as remarkable. As Mehta paints his portrait of stubborn mediocrity, he cherry-picks his data to a stunning degree.

How mediocre are America’s schools? To what extent does the mediocrity stand unchanged? Tomorrow, we will start to examine the data Mehta used to advance his gloomy claims. But in truth, if we called his work “mediocre,” we’d be guilty of grade inflation.

Mediocre? This column is worse.

To this point, we have focused on Mehta. We must also mention the role played by the New York Times.

There was no excuse for printing this piece in the form it took—except for the fact that the Times has presented this kind of work year after year by this time.

Can we talk? “Mediocre” would be a kind word for the Times’ overall education reporting. And yet, the Times is the most famous name in American journalism, just as Harvard is the most famous name in American higher ed.

All week long, we will marvel at the fact that this remarkably cherry-picked column came from this pair of elite institutions. This miserable ball of cherry-picked cheese came to us straight from the top!

In our view, “mediocre” is too kind is a word for this column. As a courtesy, though, let’s use that word, then let’s invert a famous old hook from Lord Russell:

When it comes to U.S. education reporting, it’s nothing but mediocrity. It’s mediocrity all the way up!

Tomorrow: These claims just in from The Cherry-Pick Hall of Fame!

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