TWO KINDS OF FACTS: Hacker and Dreifus make a very key point!

TUESDAY, JUNE 11, 2013

Part 2—It won’t produce a discussion: Given the way our discourse works, it often seems we have two kinds of facts—invented and withheld.

In any given subject area, we’re subjected to waves of invented facts—factual claims which are wrong or misleading. At the same time, an array of accurate facts are studiously withheld from view.

In various subject areas, these two kinds of facts are used to create highly familiar, novelized tales—novelized tales which make clear vision impossible. One such tale was given a prominent place in Sunday’s New York Times.

On the front page of the Sunday Review, Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus seemed to be making a very good point about a change will soon take place in American public schools. By the 2014-2015 school year, public schools in 45 states will be building their instruction around the so-called Common Core State Standards, a new, more demanding set of instructional goals for each of the various grades.

This is a major change in educational practice, in several different ways. According to Hacker and Dreifus, the Common Core “may be the most far-reaching experiment in American educational history.”

Hacker and Dreifus, two Gotham professors, offer a capsule account of this matter in the passage you see below. The highlighted statements take us toward the very good question they seem to raise in their piece:
HACKER AND DREIFUS (6/9/13): By the 2014-15 academic year, public schools in 45 states and the District of Columbia will administer Common Core tests to students of all ages...Many Catholic schools have also decided to implement the Common Core standards; most private, nonreligious schools have concluded that the program isn’t for them.

Many of these “assessments,” as they are called, will be more rigorous than any in the past. Whether the Common Core is called a curriculum or not, there’s little doubt that teachers will feel pressured to gear much of their instruction to this annual regimen. In the coming years, test results are likely to affect decisions about grade promotion for students, teachers’ job status and school viability.
According to Hacker and Dreifus, the tougher “standards” of the Common Core will, in essence, define a new, tougher curriculum. That tougher curriculum, and those tougher new tests, are supposed to move American students to higher levels of achievement.

It sounds good, but will it actually happen? At least for one large group of students, you can color Hacker and Dreifus extremely skeptical.

In our view, the professors employ some jumbled prose in their high-profile piece. We’ll guess that some readers fumbled along without quite grasping the (very good) point they were attempting to make.

Here’s the basic question we think they were asking:

Many students aren’t succeeding with the curriculum being taught now. So what will happen to kids like these if we make our curriculum harder?

Many kids can’t succeed at present. Won’t even more students fail if we make things harder? That’s the (very good) question the professors seem to be asking in the following passage as they imagine what might happen with the new tougher “standards” in place:
HACKER AND DREIFUS: More affluent students, as always, will have parental support. Private tutoring, already a growth industry, will become more important if passing scores on the Common Core are required for graduation. Despite worthy aims, the new standards may well deepen the nation’s social divide.

The Common Core is not oblique in its aim: to instill “college and career readiness” in every American teenager—in theory, a highly democratic ideal. In the past, students were unabashedly tracked, which usually placed middle-class students in academic courses and their working-class peers in vocational programs. New York City had high schools for cooking, printing and needle trades. (There was even one in Brooklyn called Manual Training.) Indeed, the aim of these schools was to prepare a slice of society for blue-collar life. Since the 1960s, this has been seen as undemocratic. Today, students are typically required to take algebra, so they will have more options upon graduation (should they graduate). The irony—and tragedy—is that students who don’t surmount these hurdles now fall even further.

Already, almost one-quarter of young Americans do not finish high school. In Utah and Oklahoma, roughly 20 percent don’t; the proportion rises to 32 percent in South Carolina and 42 percent in Nevada. What does the Common Core offer these students?
Even now, almost one-fourth of kids don’t graduate—may not be able to pass that required algebra class, for example. How will these kids be helped if we make the curriculum that much harder? If we tell them they have to pass algebra and trig?

This is a very good question—has been for a long time. We wrote an op-ed column on this very topic for the Baltimore Sunday Sun in February 1997, when President Clinton was proposing that we make our “standards” tougher.

In that column, we compared the proposed action to peculiar conduct at a track meet. None of the athletes can high jump 6 feet—so officials decide to raise the bar to 7 feet!

That would be a strange track meet. Hacker and Dreifus seem to making a similar point about the plan to raise the bar in public school instruction.

Hacker and Dreifus are asking a very good question about the way the Common Core may affect many kids. In March 2006, we wrote a five-part report about a student in the Los Angeles public schools who failed her high school’s required algebra class six times. Because she couldn’t pass algebra class, she couldn’t get a high school diploma—and she thereby dropped out of school midway through her twelfth grade year.

To read our full series, click here.

Our series was built upon a brilliant report in the Los Angeles Times—a brilliant news report which inspired no wider discussion. Sunday’s piece by Hacker and Dreifus won’t produce a wider discussion either.

In this country, we simply don’t have intelligent discussions about the public schools. In part, we don’t have such discussions because of the contempt our journalistic elites display toward the topic of schools. Example:

Yesterday, the New York Times offered a front-page news report on a related topic, “ability grouping.” The report was written by Vivien Yee.

Yee is a bright young woman but she seems very new to this beat. She graduated from college last June. As best we can tell, she has no background in education or education reporting.

It isn’t Yee’s fault that she got this assignment; our criticism is not aimed at her. But her unavoidable inexperience is on display all through her report, along with the studied contempt the New York Times has for such topics.

Hacker and Dreifus seemed to be raising a very important question this Sunday. But in this country, we simply don’t have intelligent discussions about the public schools. In the place of such discussions, we are routinely handed familiar, tightly-scripted novels about the state of the public schools.

These novels are built around two kinds of facts—invented and withheld. And sure enough! Midway through their piece, Hacker and Dreifus presented the novel which has driven our discussion of public schools for a very long time now. As they did, they made some amazingly basic factual errors, and at least one large leap of logic.

A great many accurate facts were withheld—basic facts the American public is rarely allowed to see.

As they typed a familiar tale, the professors trafficked in two kinds of facts. The familiar novel which resulted has helped obliterate intelligent discourse for a great many years.

Tomorrow: A very familiar tale, built upon two kinds of facts

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