Part 3—Harvard man’s fun with Finland: It’s the mediocrity of public school teachers that gets Jal Mehta’s goat.
Sitting in his office at Harvard, the young assistant professor can see their mediocrity quite distinctly. Last Saturday, he explored the failure of this group in a very lengthy column in the New York Times.
“America’s overall performance in K-12 education remains stubbornly mediocre,” the troubled young professor wrote—just before he cherry-picked a mountain of data to help Times readers get the impression he wanted to convey.
In our view, Mehta’s column truly belongs in The Cherry-Pick Hall of Fame. As he cherry-picked his essential facts, he behaved in a way which ought to get him fired.
But how strange! All this distinguished young man could see was the mediocrity—the failure—of others! “[B]y international standards, our teachers are underperforming, regardless of how they were trained,” the troubled academic observed.
Also this: “Teaching requires a professional model, like we have in medicine, law, engineering, accounting, architecture and many other fields.” If only teachers could be more like them! By implication, like Mehta himself!
Can we talk? If Mehta were judged by professional models, he would be out on the street. But he wants Times readers to know all about the failure of public school teachers!
“American education is a failed profession,” he writes. “There is no widely agreed-upon knowledge base, training is brief or nonexistent, the criteria for passing licensing exams are much lower than in other fields, and there is little continuous professional guidance.”
“The changes needed to professionalize American education won’t be easy,” the young fellow sadly mused as he ended his piece.
Here at THE HOWLER, our analysts stared at Mehta’s column, mouths agape. In the main, they were stunned by the cherry-picking which we will examine tomorrow.
That said, they also laughed at the statistical claim we will examine today.
“Professor, professionalize thyself,” one analyst mordantly said.
Let’s be clear. There are millions of public school teachers in the United States. Within that army, there are surely plenty of people whose performance could be judged mediocre.
Presumably, the performance of some teachers is worse. Presumably, our schools could be better if we had “talented teachers” of the type Mehta imagines.
That said, what would it take to professionalize Mehta’s profession? Tomorrow, we’ll look at the astonishing way he cherry-picked the bulk of his data, treating readers to misleading facts and figures about American schools.
That’s where we’ll go tomorrow. Today, we’ll restrict ourselves to that one semi-comical presentation from Mehta’s column. As we do, try to recall that Mehta is troubled by the lack of professionalism he has spotted in others.
To what indignities are readers exposed by “educational experts” like Mehta? Consider one small thing he said, as he tried to convince his readers that our educational system is just an ungodly mess:
MEHTA (4/13/13): In the nations that lead the international rankings—Singapore, Japan, South Korea, Finland, Canada—teachers are drawn from the top third of college graduates, rather than the bottom 60 percent as is the case in the United States. Training in these countries is more rigorous, more tied to classroom practice and more often financed by the government than in America. There are also many fewer teacher-training institutions, with much higher standards. (Finland, a perennial leader in the P.I.S.A. rankings, has eight universities that train teachers; the United States has more than 1,200.)The PISA is a major international testing program. That said, does Canada “lead the international rankings?” Not exactly, though we’ll postpone that till tomorrow.
For today, just consider the way Mehta discusses teacher training in the U.S. and Finland. The latter country has “many fewer teacher-training institutions, with much higher standards,” he writes. Then, to help us agree with his claim, he thoroughly clowns us, like this:
“Finland, a perennial leader in the P.I.S.A. rankings, has eight universities that train teachers; the United States has more than 1,200.”
For the record, Finland actually is “a perennial leader in the PISA rankings.” It’s also a very small, unicultural, largely middle-class nation.
Could those facts be part of the reason for Finland’s high scores on the PISA? Not in this column they can’t be! In this column, Mehta wants you to see the terrible breakdown in American educational practice. Toward that end, he clowns you with a statistical comparison that is completely absurd, even by New York Times standards.
Good lord! Finland has only eight teacher-training universities—but the United States has more than 1,200! From that comparison, we are supposed to see how crazy our practices are.
Let’s state the obvious. Demographic advantages to the side, Finland may be doing many things well in its schools. It may be that the United States can learn from observing Finland.
But why does Finland have only eight universities training its teachers? In part, the answer lies in these statistics, statistics the professor failed to mention:
Population of two famous nationsFinland is a very small nation. In total population, the United States is sixty times its size!
United States of America: 313.9 million (2012)
Finland: 5.4 million (2011)
Those who have studied ratio and proportion will note that Finland still has fewer teacher-training universities on a per capita basis. It’s possible that the U.S. could gain from restricting the number of such schools—though it’s also possible that such an action would produce no improvement at all.
That said, forget the narrow question about the optimal number of such schools. Ask yourself a different question: In what world does a Harvard professor, in the New York Times, advance a presentation like that?
Tomorrow, we’ll look at the disgraceful way Mehta cherry-picked data from domestic and international testing programs right at the start of his column. Unmistakably, his cherry-picking was designed to make readers think that our academic performance and progress are substantially worse than they actually seem to be.
Tomorrow, we’ll look at that cherry-picking; in our view, the offense is quite large. For today, just consider the sheer absurdity of that one presentation concerning little small Finland.
Are you able to see the societal breakdown which is peeping out at you from that absurd presentation? That tiny point about teacher-training schools doesn’t exactly matter. But can you see how completely absurd that presentation is?
Tomorrow, we’ll return to the start of Mehta’s piece, where his deceptions really do matter. If you lived in a rational world, this young professor would have a lot of explaining to do at his school. So would the editor who was willing to put his cherry-picked claims into print.
But for today, can you see how wonderfully clownish that one paragraph is? Or do names like Harvard and the New York Times make it hard to see the familiar mediocrity of this professor’s performance?
Tomorrow: We the people get conned again