TWO KINDS OF FACTS: Amazing errors concerning the schools!


Part 3—A nation whose highest-ranking professors and newspapers can’t get basic facts right: On the most basic level, adopting some sort of national educational “standards” makes a lot of sense.

Math in Nebraska is amazingly similar to math in Maine. In a highly mobile nation, it has never really made much sense to have the fifty different states inventing fifty different math curriculums—along with fifty sets of year-end tests, which can’t be compared with each other.

This practice has never exactly made sense. Then again, it has never exactly made sense to have a single set of “standards” for all kids in a certain grade—some of whom may be years ahead of standard grade level, some of whom may be barely functioning.

Should all fifth-graders be taught the same things? We’ll discuss this point by the end of the week. But as a matter of basic logic, we have no idea why.

In their piece in the New York Times Sunday Review, Professors Hacker and Dreifus seemed to poke at this latter point. Should all students be required to take the same curriculum and pass the same sets of tests? Hacker and Dreifus seemed to say no, especially since the new Common Core State Standards have been designed to make our curriculum “more rigorous”—harder.

Twenty-five percent of kids can’t get through high school as matters stand now. How are those students helped if we make the curriculum harder? We took that be the (very good) basic question the professors asked in their jumbled piece.

That said, Hacker and Dreifus aren’t specialists in public school education. This may help explain their opaque prose and their wandering, scattershot focus. Beyond that, it may explain the nonsense they countenanced at the end of their piece—this sign of the times, for example:
HACKER AND DREIFUS (6/9/13): Debate is now stirring within partisan circles. Glenn Beck sees the Common Core as “leftist indoctrination.” The Republican National Committee calls it “an inappropriate overreach to standardize and control the education of our children.” Republican governors and legislators in Indiana, Kansas, Georgia and several other states are talking about reconsidering their participation. Yet conservative scholars at the Manhattan and Fordham institutes laud it as promising “a far more rigorous, content-rich, cohesive K-12 education.” Some corporate C.E.O.’s favor it because they say it will upgrade the work force. Mr. Duncan is one of the lone liberal voices in support of the program. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, supports the plan, which she calls “revolutionary.” That said, she has called for a moratorium on judging teachers and schools by the first round of assessments, which she fears are sometimes being implemented hastily and without needed support.
In recent years, the Common Core Standards have been adopted for future use by 45 different states. Given our growing tribal divide, it will hardly be surprising if Republican pols in various states rethink participation in the Common Core, especially in response to crackpot claims by crackpot figures like Beck.

At several points in their piece, Hacker and Dreifus seemed to gloss the crackpot nature of modern “conservative” politics. But then, as they ended their piece, they endorsed and accepted a crackpot rant from a high-profile modern “liberal:”
HACKER AND DREIFUS (continuing directly): For Diane Ravitch, a historian of education and former assistant education secretary, the program is predicated on “the idea that you can’t trust teachers.” If we want our children taught from standardized scripts, she told us, let’s say so and accept the consequences.

For our part, we’re tired of seeing teachers cast as scapegoats, of all the carping over unions and tenure. It is time teachers are as revered in society as doctors or scientists, and allowed to work professionally without being bound by reams of rules.

Still, there’s an upside to the Common Core’s arrival. As the public better appreciates its sweep, there is likely to be much discussion about schools and what we want them to do. Ideally, this will involve a reconsideration of the contours of knowledge and the question of how we can become a better-educated nation.
We’re tired of seeing public school teachers cast as scapegoats too. On the other hand, is it federal law that crackpot claims from Ravitch must be endorsed in every piece about the public schools?

For years, Ravitch crazily beat the drums in favor of testing and standards. Now she crazily beats the drums against the regime she created. In this instance, the craziness consists in this:

Public school teachers have always been required to teach the curriculum of their school systems. This has nothing to do with “standardized scripts” or with the idea that teachers “can’t be trusted.”

Such claims represent more of the craziness at which Ravitch is expert. Swept up in the moment, though, Hacker and Dreifus go a bit crazy too, suggesting that teachers should be “revered in society” in the same way doctors are.

Of course, doctors have to follow “reams of rules” too. If not, how do they manage to get sued so often?

If teachers don’t want to be bound by any rules, they can of course open their own private schools. The notion that teachers should be “revered” and left on their own is, to coin a term, crazy.

Alas! As this high-profile piece come to an end, our two professors go a bit crazy too. But this is the typicalway public schools get discussed in our biggest and dumbest newspaper.

In this country, we rarely have serious public discussions. In place of such discussions, we tend to repeat standardized tales built from two kinds of facts—invented and withheld.

Midway through their jumbled piece, the professors repeat such a tale. More precisely, they repeat the bogus standardized tale which rules all current discussion of our public schools, especially those in which our teachers get cast as hideous scapegoats.

This highly familiar, bogus story is built from two kinds of facts—invented and withheld. To this standardized witches’ brew, the professors weirdly decided to add their own puzzling errors:
HACKER AND DREIFUS: On its surface, the case for the Common Core is compelling. It is widely known that American students score well below their European and Asian peers in reading and math, an alarming shortfall in a competitive era. According to the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment, the United States ranks 24th out of 34 countries in “mathematics literacy,” trailing Sweden and the Czech Republic, and 11th in “reading literacy,” behind Estonia and Poland. (South Korea ranks first in both categories.) Under the Common Core, students in participating states will immediately face more demanding assignments. Supporters are confident that students will rise to these challenges and make up for our country’s lag in the global education race. We are not so sure.

“It is widely known that American students score well below their European and Asian peers in reading and math.” That is the premier standard story, the ur-narrative, which rules almost all discussion of our public schools.

That story is built upon two kinds of facts—invented and withheld. For starters, though, let’s examine the puzzling errors the professors dreamed up on their own.
Two puzzling errors of fact: No, Virginia! It doesn’t hugely matter, but the United States didn’t rank 11th and 24th on the 2009 PISA tests.

It doesn’t hugely matter. But by all accounts, the United States ranked 14th in reading and 25th in math among those 34 nations.

Try as we might, we can’t find a way to explain the professors’ alternate rankings, which actually improve the U.S. position. If you look at the basic PISA charts, it’s clear that at least eleven nations outscored the U.S. in reading. (Click here, scroll down to page 8.)

This would mean that, at best, the United States finished 12th out of 34. But because Poland and Iceland apparently outscored the U.S. by a fraction of a point, the final ranking ends up at 14th out of 34—although the NCES says the U.S. was outscored by only six of those 34 nations in a “measurably different” way.

A puzzling error of logic: We don’t know where the professors got their alternate rankings. Even more puzzling is their logic. To wit:

According to the professors, the United States finished 11th out of 34 nations in reading. If that’s true, why would they say, as they plainly do, that “American students score well below their European and Asian peers in reading?”

If you rank 11th out of 34, you are outscoring the bulk of their peers. Why did the professors present that puzzling piece of logic?
Those puzzling errors of fact and logic seem to belong to these professors alone. That said, they are telling our nation’s controlling Ur-Story: “American students score well below their peers in reading and math.”

Later in their jumbled report, the professors complain about the way our public school teachers keep getting scapegoated. But this bogus Ur-Story is the principle basis on which that mugging occurs!

“It is widely known that American students score well below their European and Asian peers in reading and math.” That story rules our public debate, but it’s largely built upon two kinds of facts—invented and withheld.

Let’s examine some basic facts which were withheld by Hacker and Dreifus:

Did American students “score well below their European and Asian peers in reading” on the 2009 PISA? Plainly, the professors make that assertion. But here are the average reading scores for U.S. students on those tests, as compared to the average scores from our principle European counterparts:
Average scores, 2009 PISA, reading literacy
United States 500
Germany 497
France 496
United Kingdom 494
(Average for OECD nations 493)
Italy 486
Spain 481
That chart compares the U.S. average score to those of the five largest Euro nations. In the most direct sense, those five nations are this country’s European peers.

Despite what the professors wrote, American students outscored their peers in all five of those large European nations. What led the professors to say that they scored “well below” their peers?

What causes people like Hacker and Dreifus to keep repeating such claims, claims from that standardized story? We can’t answer that question. But their tendency to withhold facts doesn’t end at this point:

Of the three major international test batteries, the PISA is the one on which American students have scored most poorly in the past decade. On the 2011 TIMSS and PIRLS, American students scored and ranked better than on the 2009 PISA.

Result? Slaves to script like these professors cherry-pick the worst international scores. The better, more recent rankings and scores are, in a word, withheld.

In that passage, the professors pounded ahead with a bogus Standard Story. What explains the intellectual sickness which produces this endless pattern? We can’t tell you that.

But if you finish 11th out of 34, you plainly aren’t “scoring well below your peers.” Except within that Standard Story, the one every hack will recite.

American students don’t lead the world on international tests. They also don’t perform in the hapless ways the hacks go out of their way to describe, repeating the bogus Standard Tale which rules our public school discourse.

Where has this Standard Story come from? We can’t tell you that. But tomorrow, we'll show you more of the facts Hacker and Dreifus withheld from their piece.

And how strange! These remarkable facts, which they withheld, actually reinforce their main point! But by the rules of this sick, corrupt game, those facts had to be withheld.

Tomorrow: The horrifying, uplifting facts which emerge from disaggregation

Where we ranked on the PISA: Truly, we can’t figure out where Hacker and Dreifus got their rankings for the 2009 PISA. There’s more than one way to think about rankings. But we can’t find a way to end up with their rankings.

As a point of reference, here’s the way Arne Duncan described our rankings:
DUNCAN (12/7/10): The basic findings of the 2009 PISA for the United States are as follows. In reading literacy, 15-year old American students were average performers among 34 OECD nations. The U.S. effectively showed no change in reading skills since 2000. Overall, the OECD's rankings have U.S. students in 14th place in reading literacy among OECD nations.

In mathematics, U.S. 15-year olds are below-average performers among OECD nations.

After a dip in our 2006 math scores, U.S. students returned to the same level of performance in 2009 as six years earlier, in 2003. Still, we rank a lowly 25th in math.
According to Duncan, we ranked 14th and 25th out of the 34 nations. And that is surely the way it looks on the basic PISA charts.

Many countries which outscored the U.S. did so in ways which weren’t “measurably different.” But where did the professors get their rankings?

We can’t find a way to get there from here. The New York Times tends to be like this.


  1. Wow, the attack on Diane Ravitch is really off the charts and quite unfair. I read her blog every day, I feel that she's great. But if you are for the privatization of our schools then I guess you might not like Diane so much.

    1. TDH finds reasons to despise virtually all others who advance progressive points of view in not quite the ways he would prefer. He also cherry-picks like crazy to justify these personal antipathies, as he obviously does here using seven quoted words with no context. There are some who are attacked by TDH frequently -- this does not include Dowd, Collins, Matthews and a few others whose stature and influence demands continued vigilance -- where the antipathy seems to have sprung from some specific personal affront.

      It is very difficult to put into words where the right dividing line is between setting basic teaching requirements as a school district obviously must do and taking away any initiative from the teachers. Most teachers, however, know what Ravitch is talking about, with a virtually universal feeling among veterans that the vastly increased testing regime focused on reading and math has pushed that line much further towards the central-control side and made imaginative teaching more difficult. TDH thinks he knows everything about teaching based on his experiences many years ago, and he does great work with the statistics that destroy the mainstream script, but he apparently is not in touch with the way most experienced teachers feel today.

    2. If she did "crazily beat the drums in favor of testing and standards," then TDH has a leg up on her. The bullshit Darwinian idea that if you just put enough pressure, and keep raising the stakes, that magically kids will get a better education must be cut down at the roots. Consistent, periodic testing is good for a rough guage, but putting standardized testing on a pedastal is a big mistake. What are our public schools there for, anyway? Are they just trade schools for Dow Chemical? How do you measure the value of an elementary art teacher? Simple: as a culture, we decide that they are good for all of us. And all of the people who want to find all of those bad art teachers so we can fire them to save money need a soul implant.

    3. But she's not great. She's fatuous, as has been shown on this blog time and time again. She was fatuous when she was shilling for testing, and she's fatuous now that she's against it. When has she ever said anything insightful? She's a tribal script reciter.

    4. "If she did "crazily beat the drums in favor of testing and standards""...

      She did.

    5. urban legend,

      I think you've hit the nail on the head about the current state of TDH. You made some excellent points in the comments on the Sirota post and it deserved some kind of response. Certainly this post above was just another step in the wrong direction for TDH.

    6. " just another step in the wrong direction "

      Yes, every step wrong. And thanks so much for your own continuing contributions.


    7. Anon 631,

      Instead of yawning, you could address urban legend's comments here (or on the Sirota post).

    8. Could, but there was no meat on it.

      This: "despise virtually all others who advance progressive points," "personal antipathies," "thinks he knows everything about teaching," "not in touch with the way most experienced teachers feel today"

      And then praise from someone who adds, "just another step in the wrong direction."

      That is not comments which need to be "addressed."

      That is hot air.

      As someone already pointed out, the reflexive defense of Ravitch apparently didn't even have the basis of knowing that she indeed formerly "crazily beat the drums in favor of testing and standards."

      The parent comment, which premises that anyone criticising Ravitch is likely in favor of "privatization of our schools" shows that person, leaving aside for the moment their blinkered view of Ravitch, also has exactly zero familiarity with Somerby's history on this topic.

      And yet urban legend finds the comment praiseworthy, adding his own hot air and false history to it!

      This, I'm supposed to engage with?

      No, ridicule is the appropriate response.

  2. I'd defend Ravitch, but for a different reason. I'm all for calm discourse, but there's room for invective, too. People need a sort of mix, I think. They can listen to Michelle Rhee scream about how horrible teachers are, and then they can listen to Ravitch perhaps overzealously defend teachers.

    Rhee had the mike a long time. It was this loud, non-stop drumbeat. Nothing wrong with pushing back hard. The situation also isn't "equal", because Rhee has the whole GOP politician group in her corner and half the Democrats, along with lots and lots of big-dollar donors. She actually extremely well connected, politically.

    I think there's room for both measured and reasonable AND fierce. I also don't want to set this up so people can't change their minds. Obviously, Ravitch was wrong when she worked for Lynne Cheney. I think she's made sufficient amends, and can now get on with it.

  3. Diane Ravitch was wrong to think she could work with Lynne Cheney. But at least she has had the courage to recognize her error! She is not wrong now to defend teachers. To call her or her ideas crackpot is to cheapen language. She is not a crackpot, she is a fallible human being like you and me. She is also a scholar who knows her stuff and a valuable advocate for children.

    And I'm sorry, because I agree with Bob Somerby on many things and find his column extremely useful, for the most part.

    Many people make mistakes -- arguably "re-inventing government" and "ending welfare as we know it" were two grievous mistakes of the Clinton Gore era that put us on the privatization disaster route that we have been on ever since, and I haven't heard them repudiated by those that touted them. Voting for the Iraq war, as Mrs. Clinton did against the wishes of 99 percent of the electorate was an even greater mistake, possibly a crime. Perhaps she has repudiated that. If not, shame on her.

    1. During the primaries of 2008 Hillary did say that she regretted her vote for the Iraq war.

    2. She does not admit to having made a mistake or to having betrayed her constituents and endorsed the deaths of thousands of innocents.

      Feb. 10, 2007: Nashua, N.H., resident Roger Tilton tells Clinton: “I want to know if right here, right now, once and for all, without nuance, you can say that that war authorization vote was a mistake.”

      Clinton’s response: “Well, I have said, and I will repeat it, that knowing what I know now, I would never have voted for it but I also — and — I mean, obviously you have to weigh everything as you make your decisions. I have taken responsibility for my vote. The mistakes were made by this president who misled this country and this Congress into a war that should not have been waged.”

  4. Bob, you're writing a post on how Americans are unfairly portrayed as dumb illiterates, and you write:

    "But this bogus Ur-Story is the principle basis on which that mugging occurs!"

    And you write:

    "But here are the average reading scores for U.S. students on those tests, as compared to the average scores from our principle European counterparts."

    "principle", Bob? No, "principal". Too bad your software isn't smart enough to recognize usage errors instead of just spelling errors.

    Is this a trivial mistake? Yes, but no more so than many of the mistakes of others you obsess over and use as a basis to ridicule them.

  5. Picker of Nits indeed! Do you have an example of Somerby ridiculing people for mistakes more trivial than a minor usage error? If so I'd be interested to see it.