Should David Sirota be saying this thing?


Seems to describe recent “educational crisis:” Doggone it!

That’s what several of the analysts said after reading David Sirota’s recent column at Salon. In the column, Sirota seemed to describe an “educational crisis” of fairly recent origin.

Is the United States experiencing an “educational crisis?” That’s a matter of semantic preference. But if we are experiencing an educational crisis, it certainly isn’t of recent origin. Test scores for all major student population groups have risen substantially in reading and math over the past several decades.

On the National Assessment of Educational Progress, test scores for black kids and Hispanic kids are way up. You’d almost think that progressive writers would want to proclaim this good news.

Those test scores in reading and math are way up—but very few people have ever heard this encouraging news. You see, powerful folk like to trash public schools and their infernal unionized teachers.

These powerful people constantly say that things have been getting worse, so much worse. They like to compare the present day with some imagined golden age, when American educational performance was just massively better.

This familiar portrait flies in the face of the available evidence. That’s why the analysts were upset with Sirota’s portrait of an educational crisis which seems to have developed since the year 2000.

That said, they had other complaints with Sirota’s piece. Let’s touch on them first.

Question: Where do our most advantaged students rank on international scales?

Sirota makes an obvious point in his column—American children who come from poverty backgrounds tend to do less well in school than their middle-class peers. But at one point, he advanced a bogus claim—a bogus claim many liberals have adopted in recent years:
SIROTA (6/3/13): [A]s Barkan shows, for all the claims that the traditional public school system is flawed, America’s wealthiest traditional public schools happen to be among the world’s highest-achieving schools. Most of those high-performing wealthy public schools also happen to be unionized. If, as “reformers” suggest, the public school system or the presence of organized labor was really the key factor in harming American education, then those wealthy schools would be in serious crisis—and wouldn’t be at the top of the international charts.
Sirota is defending teachers unions in that passage. In the process, he makes a bogus, misleading claim.

Do “America’s wealthiest public schools happen to be among the world’s highest-achieving schools?” That sounds impressive, although, in the way Sirota states it, the claim is a bit hard to parse.

This claim has been floating around for years. Here’s what Joanne Barkan said in the piece at Dissent to which Sirota linked and referred:
BARKAN (2011): To justify their campaign, ed reformers repeat, mantra-like, that U.S. students are trailing far behind their peers in other nations, that U.S. public schools are failing. The claims are specious. Two of the three major international tests—the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study and the Trends in International Math and Science Study—break down student scores according to the poverty rate in each school. The tests are given every five years. The most recent results (2006) showed the following: students in U.S. schools where the poverty rate was less than 10 percent ranked first in reading, first in science, and third in math...
For the record, the TIMSS was administered in 2007, not in 2006. In the claim we have highlighted, Barkan makes a much more significant error.

The National Center for Educational Statistics reports average TIMSS scores for U.S. schools where fewer than ten percent of the students receive free or reduced price lunch.

Despite Barkan’s representation, that isn’t a measure of “poverty.” But Barkan seems to be citing these statistics as she makes her claim about U.S. schools with low poverty rates.

What's wrong or misleading about Barkan’s claim? For starters, a surprisingly small number of American schools have fewer than ten percent of their students receiving free or reduced priced lunch. In the main, these schools are found in our nation's most upscale neighborhoods.

Kids in those schools are our most advantaged. In the statistics to which Barkan refers, their performance is being compared with the performance of entire student populations, warts and all, from other nations.

Reading Barkan, it may sound like our wealthiest schools outscore the wealthiest schools from all other nations. That isn't what those NCES statistics show or mean.

Duh. It shouldn’t be surprising if our most advantaged student groups produce better average scores than the entire student populations of other nations. This only means that a limited group of advantaged kids can outperform the full range of kids, advantaged and otherwise, from other countries.

There’s nothing surprising about that. And it doesn’t mean that the U.S. schools in question are “among the world’s highest-achieving schools,” to quote Sirota’s claim, although in some sense they may be.

In recent years, liberals have started reciting versions of this claim, trying to show how great our schools are except for the effects of poverty. This is a silly, bogus claim. It’s depressing to see the liberal world act like employees of Fox.

Question: Should Rahm Emanuel be closing those schools in Chicago?

All across the United States, urban mayors have been closing schools as student populations shrink. This led Sirota to offer these thoughts about Chicago’s “wildly unpopular” mayor, Rahm Emanuel:
SIROTA: [D]espite the fact that many “reformers’” policies have spectacularly failed, prompted massive scandals and/or offered no actual proof of success, an elite media that typically amplifies—rather than challenges—power and money loyally casts “reformers’” systematic pillaging of public education as laudable courage (the most recent example of this is Time magazine’s cover cheering on wildly unpopular Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel after he cited budget austerity to justify the largest mass school closing in American history—all while he is also proposing to spend $100 million of taxpayer dollars on a new private sports stadium).
Is Emanuel “wildly unpopular?” We clicked the link Sirota offered. It took us to the Huffington Post, which said a new poll “reports that 50 percent of respondents approve of the job Emanuel is doing leading the city while 40 percent disapprove.”

As noted: It’s depressing when major progressives act like employees of Fox.

According to Sirota’s source, Emanuel isn’t wildly unpopular. That said, is this really “the largest mass school closing in American history?”

In this case, Sirota’s link took us to an interview at Democracy Now, where Aaron Mate made that claim about Emanuel’s closing of 50 schools. Unfortunately, Mate’s guest, Diane Ravitch, immediately referred to New York City, “where the mayor has closed something like 150 schools over several years.” Mayor Bloomberg just hasn't closed “so many at one time,” Ravitch added.

Sirota’s claim isn’t exactly “wrong.” It’s just pointlessly misleading. Are we somehow required to act like we work for Fox?

Most important question: Are we experiencing an education crisis of recent origin?

Sirota does some very sloppy writing in this piece. Progressives who care about public schools really should demand better.

That said, Sirota made the analysts tear their hair early in his piece. In this passage, it almost sounds like he’s taking dictation from Michelle Rhee and other such types:
SIROTA: According to a new U.S. Department of Education study, “about one in five public schools was considered high poverty in 2011…up from about to one in eight in 2000.” This followed an earlier study from the department finding that “many high-poverty schools receive less than their fair share of state and local funding…leav(ing) students in high-poverty schools with fewer resources than schools attended by their wealthier peers.”

Those data sets powerfully raise the question that “reformers” are so desperate to avoid: Are we really expected to believe that it’s just a coincidence that the public education and poverty crises are happening at the same time? Put another way: Are we really expected to believe that everything other than poverty is what’s causing problems in failing public schools?
In that passage, Sirota makes it sound like a “public education crisis” of some sort has been underway since sometime around the year 2000. He seems to say that this “public education crisis” has been caused by a rise in poverty.

In his citation of poverty, Sirota sends a thrill up progressives legs. In the process, he also advances a bogus claim the corporate types love to advance.

It’s amazingly foolish for progressives to act like our public schools went into a tailspin around 2000. Beyond that, it just isn’t true. Tests scores by black kids and Hispanic kids are strongly improved since that time.

In a rational world, progressives would want to announce that encouraging fact about American kids and their public school teachers. But later, Sirota played the Rhee card once again, referring to “an overwhelming wave of evidence showing that our education crisis has far less to do with public schools or bad teachers than it does with the taboo subject of crushing poverty.”

This may send a thrill up the legs of some. It made our analysts tear their hair.

This jumbled column is riddled with errors. But reading and math scores are strongly improved over the past few decades. It's amazing to see the way major progressives refuse to share this good news with the public.

It's what Michelle Rhee wants us to do. We happily rush off to do it.


  1. David Sirota is startlingly unreliable and this is only 1 sad example of the matter. I do not know whether it is being lazy or being a propagandist, but it is so. I suppose they have an influential constituency that wants such writers and they oblige. Being independent can be dangerous.


  2. Bob has a point, which he has often made, that education results within group have been improving, if the groups are defined as Hispanic, Black and All Other. But, is that necessarily the right way to group students?

    There are two possible problems with that grouping IMHO. First, does that sort of ethnicity necessarily define one's educational potential? Second, would other plausible groupings show different results?

    One the former, why does Bob think blacks and Hispanics automatically do so much worse that they should be looked at separately? To put an answer into words would be politically incorrect, so I will leave it as a question. Also, it's the responsibility of our schools to educate our students whatever their ethnicity. If hunger were increasing only because more blacks and Hispanics were starving, I don't think we'd say that was OK.

    Regarding the second question, why not look at other plausible groupings. E.g.,

    -- Separate Hispanics into Immigrants vs. people born here.
    -- Separate All Other into Caucasian, Asian and Native American
    -- Look separately at Home Schooled
    -- Look separately at children who attend private or parochial schools.

    Maybe Hispanics are improving because a larger percentage were born in the US. Maybe all groups are improving because more are being educated other than in our public schools. Maybe the All Other group is improving because the Asian portion is growing. in short, if our analysis is going to subdivide the population, perhaps we should go farther than just three groups.

    1. What rottenness, what this bizarre comment does is maliciously subvert every point Bob Somerby is trying to make but you know that and are just maliciously and bizarrely trolling.

    2. David, you pretend that there are not studies examining such things. For example, there is no performance advantage consistently found comparing public vs charter (private) schools when you control for student selection bias. The strongest correlations with higher performance are for family income, not ethnicity.

    3. Dave,

      You've been hanging around here for a while. so I'm sure you've heard Bob Somerby answer the question many times about why blacks and Hispanics should be looked at separately: a disproportionate number of speakers of English as a second language and a long history of slavery and enforced illiteracy. (That wasn't so hard to put into words, now was it?)

      If you have a well supported argument about why these categories are a problem, have at it!

      If not, I'll just assume you are being willfully obtuse, as usual.

  3. The real education crisis is the attack on teachers and funding levels for public education.

  4. Part 1

    Many – if not most - of the so-called "reformers" worship at the altar of "free" markets. They do so despite the lessons of history (the Great Depression and the Great Recession being two prime examples in the U.S. alone within the last 83 years).

    And they do so despite still unfolding market-rigging scandals in the London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR) – which affects several hundred trillion dollars of assets and loans – and the ISDAfix, which is "a benchmark number used around the world to calculate the prices of interest-rate swaps."

    The emerging evidence is that some of the world's biggest banks and trading companies gamed a "market" of some nearly $400 trillion of these trades, and not in favor of the public. And not surprisingly, some of the very same players (corporate and individual "investors") were engaged in both the LIBOR and ISDAfix scandals.

    To the "reformers" none of this seems to matter. They disregard it, in the same way they ignore the fact that their brand of "reform" is constructed on two crass mistruths: (1) that there is a public education "crisis" in the U.S., and (2) that American "economic competitiveness" is dependent on public school "reform." Both are demonstrably false.

    As I've noted repeatedly, the data (which these folks claim to care about) have shown and continue to show that there is no general "crisis" in public education in the United States.

    The Sandia Report (Journal of Educational Research, May/June, 1993), published in the wake of A Nation at Risk, concluded that:

    * "..on nearly every measure we found steady or slightly improving trends."

    * "youth today [the 1980s] are choosing natural science and engineering degrees at a higher rate than their peers of the 1960s."

    * "business leaders surveyed are generally satisfied with the skill levels of their employees, and the problems that do exist do not appear to point to the k-12 education system as a root cause."

    * "The student performance data clearly indicate that today's youth are achieving levels of education at least as high as any previous generation."

    Some of the critics cherry-pick international test data to buttress their call for "reform." I suppose if you're willing to cheat and steal and game the system for your own profit at the expense of others, all the while calling for tax cuts for yourself and cuts for public programs, then you're also more than willing to lie about a set of numbers if it leads to your continued economic interests.

  5. Part 2

    Reading is considered to be a key to learning and school achievement. Below are PISA reading scores (disaggregated for the U.S., which has an incredibly large, diverse, and increasingly poor student population:

    Average score, reading literacy, PISA, 2009: 
    [United States, Asian students 541] 
    Korea 539 
    Finland 536 
    [United States, white students 525] 
    Canada 524 
    New Zealand 521 
    Japan 520 
    Australia 515 
    Netherlands 508 
    Belgium 506 
    Norway 503 
    Estonia 501 
    Switzerland 501 
    Poland 500 
    Iceland 500 
    United States (overall) 500 
    Sweden 497 
    Germany 497 
    Ireland 496 
    France 496 
    Denmark 495 
    United Kingdom 494 
    Hungary 494 
    OECD average 493 
    Portugal 489 
    Italy 486 
    Slovenia 483 
    Greece 483 
    Spain 481 
    Czech Republic 478 
    Slovak Republic 477 
    Israel 474 
    Luxembourg 472 
    Austria 470 
    [United States, Hispanic students 466] 
    Turkey 464 
    Chile 449 
    [United States, black students 441] 
    Mexico 425 

    Bob Somerby pointed out the recent Trends in International Math and Science Study (TIMSS) test results found that “In eighth-grade science...Massachusetts outscored every major nation which took the test, including the Asian tigers Taiwan, Korea and Japan.” Somerby noted that “Our schools face tremendous demographic challenges due to our brutal racial history and due to our immigration practices...But good lord! As the percentage of low-income and minority kids keeps growing, American test scores keep getting better. We think that’s a striking good-news story—but the plutocrats and their tribunes don’t want you to hear or enjoy it. “ Indeed.

    Overall, the U.S. scores stack up...the problem is in schools with high concentrations of poverty. Indeed, PISA scores (the scores usually cited by public education critics) are quite sensitive to income level. If one disaggregates U.S. scores the problem becomes clearer: the more poverty a school has, the lower its scores. The presumed do-gooders seem to think that more “competition” and ambitiousness will cause the schools to fix the effects of poverty. Those effects are pernicious.

  6. Part 3

    A technical report from the American Academy of Pediatrics on the damaging effects of toxic stress in children – the kind of stress found in high-poverty urban areas – finds that such stress involves "activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical axis and the sympathetic-adrenomedullary system, which results in increased levels of stress hormones, such as corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH), cortisol, norepinephrine, and adrenaline. These changes co-occur with a network of other mediators that include elevated inflammatory cytokines and the response of the parasympathetic nervous system, which counterbalances both sympathetic activation and inflammatory responses.”

    The result is that “toxic stress in young children can lead to less outwardly visible yet permanent changes in brain structure and function....chronic stress is associated with hypertrophy and overactivity in the amygdala and orbitofrontal cortex, whereas comparable levels of adversity can lead to loss of neurons and neural connections in the hippocampus and medial PFC. The functional consequences of these structural changes include more anxiety related to both hyperactivation of the amygdala and less top-down control as a result of PFC atrophy as well as impaired memory and mood control as a consequence of hippocampal reduction.”

    In plain speak, alleviating poverty and its pernicious effects, and providing children with high quality environments before they get to school, and following up with health and academic and social policy programs while they are in school, results not only in high-quality education but also in a high-quality citizenry....and in promoting the general welfare of the nation. This is surely not what the "reformers" want. It might – will – require a cessation to the gaming of the "markets" and the tax system.

    The public education system in a democratic republic is supposed to develop and nurture democratic character and citizenship. That's the kind of reform we need.

    And it's exactly the kind of reform the "reformers" detest.

    1. Thanks for the legwork, Anon.
      Too bad our "reporters" won't do it.

    2. Shut that shit up! I want to talk about gay rights, and call people racists and bigots. I don't care about that poverty shit. Now, I have to go. "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me!" is about to start on NPR, and I never miss it. I love seeing how much smarter I am than the panel.

  7. Mother Jones article last year on Mission High SF was nice

    1. I was a good article.

      Here's the crux of it:'

      "despite a mountain of evidence that standardized tests reveal a very narrow slice of information, in most states they still determine a school's fate. In some, such as New York, students' scores on the standardized tests also play a major role in grade promotion and high school placement. And in several states, up to 50 percent of the evaluations that determine teachers' job security and sometimes pay are based on a week's worth of tests rather than a year's worth of learning."

      And this:

      "In the broader context of education reform, standardized testing data has been seen as absolute proof of specific policies' effectiveness. Pick up almost any news story on education—whether it is about charter schools, teacher bonuses, class sizes, or teacher unions—and the go-to evidence is gains or losses on the tests without regard for other measures, even easily available quantitative data such as dropout rates, student attendance, teacher attrition, or college enrollment rates."

      And while the Mother Jones reporter did her homework, many - maybe most - do not. Bob Somerby keeps complaining about that. And rightfully so.

  8. Hooray!! Bob Somerby is smarter than Sirota. And Maddow. And Greenwald...(Greenwald just doesn't read closely enough to appreciate the beauty that is a Susan Rice statement.)

    Anyone who bothers to click through to Sirota's article will quickly see what a trashy hit piece TDH has published. Is this a sane reaction to Sirota's piece? Does TDH worry Sirota is somehow hurting Hillary's poll numbers? Is there any wxplanation for this sour, curdled post?

    1. Anon @ 3:00 answered you already,

      The real education crisis is the attack on teachers and funding levels for public education.

      Years ago public school teachers were genuinely appreciated. They do a great job, and if they had the support of the mainstream, would do even better.

      So many TDH haters miss that their liberal heros argue their cases under right-wing general assumptions. Staking out a position that food stamps shouldn't be cut so much is a far cry from pushing for economic policies that would create full employment. Sirota's article is the same. He pretends to be confused about a "reformer" that also supports a private stadium. Everybody that doesn't have a horse in the race sees quite clearly that the whole reform/charter group is just another privatization movement.

    2. That's hilarious. TDH sock puppets already trashed the supporters of higher funding levels in his hit piece on Liao, the smartest college kid around. They're just greedy we were informed just days ago.

    3. Man, where do you get this? I went back and reread the post on Liao. The discussion was about the Scandinavian myth. The only talk of funding levels was from DinC, and if you think DinC is a TDH sock puppet, well ... ... ... Wow!

    4. From the June 6 post on Gail Collins...

      MaxFrost comments:
      "Liao ... states that it's a "crisis" that "elites" like her and her friends are opting for careers in finance, media, and corporate law. Who needs her. Teachers should be well compensated, but it's not a field best suited for fast buck artists, self-promoters and social climbers. Those are the kind of people that need to be marginalized, not teaching our kids. "

      Certain Liao never "discussed" the Scandinavian myth--she may have touched on it tangentially, but that wasn't central to her essay.

    5. Anon 535,

      I'm guessing you did read Sirota's piece, but I don't see any sign that he is confused (pretending or otherwise) about reformers' motives or goals.

      Our host at this blog pretends to care about kids, but would he attack Sirota's energetic and persuasive piece if that were the case? Or would he promote Sirota's piece as a giant step in the right direction?

    6. SIROTA: [D]espite the fact that many “reformers’” policies have spectacularly failed, prompted massive scandals and/or offered no actual proof of success, an elite media that typically amplifies—rather than challenges—power and money loyally casts “reformers’” systematic pillaging of public education as laudable courage (the most recent example of this is Time magazine’s cover cheering on wildly unpopular Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel after he cited budget austerity to justify the largest mass school closing in American history—all while he is also proposing to spend $100 million of taxpayer dollars on a new private sports stadium).

      It is not easy to parse, but it seems like Sirota is saying that "reformers" are not from "power and money."

    7. Anon 301,

      It's not the most elegant passage ever written; Sirota is busy getting in an extra dig at Emanuel while also criticizing press coverage of "reformers." But where do get that Sirota "pretends to be confused?"

      Or are you dropping that claim to make a new one about the relationship between reformers and "power and money?" Do you seriously want to try to make the argument that Sirota's piece wasn't sufficiently critical of the reformers' methods and motives?

      Why don't you just say that Sirota just wrote the best article on public education published this year on any website other than TDH and leave it at that? If not, point to a better one.

      One would have thought that after the Megan McArdle "new mandarins" debacle where TDH badly embarrassed itself in a series of ill-concieved posts pointlessly attacking youngish liberal writers, TDH would have learned something. Apparently not or not much.

    8. Why Somerby shouldn't point out Sirota's errors and false implications is something you never seem to really get to...

      Calling Somerby's work a "hit piece" and Sirota's "the best article on public education" doesn't really cut it.

      Bottom line: Sirota did make the errors Somerby cites and the errors are worth mentioning.

    9. TDH did not identify any actual errors and the false implications seem to be largely constructed in Somerby's mind.

      Noticeably, you failed to point to a better piece on public education (not written by Somerby).

    10. Uh, I don't *have* to point to a better piece on public education. Whether or not one exists has no bearing whatsoever on whether or not Sirota has made mistakes worth critcising. So are you done trying to change the subject?

      It is an error, and misleading, to speak of a US education crisis in the terms Sirota did.

      Somerby's relentless focus on this may irritate you, but it's Sirota who's misleading people on the point.

      Some Sirota worshippers can't stand to admit their hero has any flaws, it seems.

    11. Of course you don't have to point to a better piece on public education, it was just an invitation. Still, it would have been nice...

      Sirota's references to an education crisis are only in relation to the effects of income and economic inequality on education: most readers who agree with Somerby's critique of the educational reform movement (personified by Rhee) would not see Sirota's statements as either misleading or outright errors. Sirota doesn't refer back to some earlier era when performance was better. A more relevant question is why TDH thinks discussion of poverty is off-limits in an article about public education.

  9. The comment about poverty is wrong-headed even if technically correct. Free and reduced lunch is the measure we have for education statistics. Kids from families with income of 130% and 185% of the poverty level, respectively, qualify. Yes, it is not at the official poverty level, but even the maximum income level for reduced lunch is well below the median for family size. At best, even the 185% level is an income to struggle with. Free and reduced lunch may not be "the" measure of poverty but it is a reasonable (and the only) proxy available for that kind of analysis. The main point is correct.

    The U.S. has a depth of inequality unlike any other advanced country in the world. Finland has a top 10 %/bottom 10% ratio about 6 to 1, whereas the U.S ratio is ABOUT 17 TO 1. Using states like Massachusetts and Minnesota, the size of countries with plenty of "warts" themselves and both heavily unionized, would be a better benchmark for demonstrating the point Barkan made about the wealthiest schools, but it makes the same point. Poverty and inequality are very high in the U.S. compared to other countries, with test score effects for having a high percentage of free or reduced lunch students about 100 or more points. It is a perfectly valid point that high poverty drags down the overall U.S. scores compared to countries that are almost entirely middle class and have little real poverty. I'm not sure what value there is in ripping general writers who are on the right track in attacking the prevailing false narrative but don't possess the in-depth knowledge of someone who has specialized in these matters (with valuable results, yes) for many years.

    1. An alternative title to this TDH post could have been: Sirota Writes the Best Piece Ever Published by Salon on Public Education. But bob went in a different direction.

  10. To say that poverty is associated with bad educational results doesn't mean that poverty causes bad results. Correlation isn't causation. As a counter-example, some poor immigrant groups had children who excelled in school, such as Asians in recent times and Jews a couple of generations ago.

    Thomas Sowell has done studies showing that culture is the biggest key. IMHO the biggest reason poverty is associated with poor test scores is that certain ways of living lead to poverty and also lead to being bad students.

    1. Thomas Sowell?

      You're g ing to cite Thomas Sowell?


    2. Another cheer for David's pep rally:

      We earned our money
      The poor deserve what they get!