Part 3—Standard memorized gloomy claims about our broken-down schools: Does Robert J. Gordon know squat from squadoosh about the public schools?
It’s our impression that he may not. Here’s why that’s a problem:
Professor Gordon, an economics professor, sounded off in Sunday’s New York Times about the state of the public schools. He wrote this long gloomy piece for the Sunday Review.
As editors saw the piece, it told a familiar story. Here’s the way they presented that tale to Times readers:
The visual which accompanied Gordon’s piece showed a broken-down yellow school bus. Smoke poured out from under the hood. The headline told a gloomy old tale:
“The Great Stagnation of American Education.”
In his lengthy, gloom-shrouded piece, Gordon discussed “American education” through the completion of college—but students don’t go to college in yellow school buses. As such, that visual conveyed a Tired Old Tale about K-12 schools, a tale the Times loves to recite.
Last month, Bill Keller recited this Tired Old Tale. In his weekly op-ed column, he announced that we have experienced “decades of embarrassing decline in K-12 education.”
The visual of that broken-down school bus told the same gloomy story. But then, the professor seemed to tell a similar tale as he started his piece:
GORDON (9/8/13): For most of American history, parents could expect that their children would, on average, be much better educated than they were. But that is no longer true. This development has serious consequences for the economy.A careful reader might note this fact: if our improvement has slowed to a crawl, that means we’re still improving. “Great stagnation” would be a gloomy way to describe this state of affairs.
The epochal achievements of American economic growth have gone hand in hand with rising educational attainment, as the economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence F. Katz have shown. From 1891 to 2007, real economic output per person grew at an average rate of 2 percent per year—enough to double every 35 years. The average American was twice as well off in 2007 as in 1972, four times as well off as in 1937, and eight times as well off as in 1902. It’s no coincidence that for eight decades, from 1890 to 1970, educational attainment grew swiftly. But since 1990, that improvement has slowed to a crawl.
That careful reader might also note this: the professor hasn’t yet said what he means by “educational attainment.” As it turns out, he seems to mean the number of grades completed in school. He seems to refer to the percentage of people who are attaining high school or college diplomas.
The percentage obtaining a high school diploma may be slightly down from 1970, the professor says—although this is a very difficult topic, and it isn’t clear that the professor knows that to be the case. By the same token, the professor says the number attaining a college diploma is still going slightly up.
If those are the professor’s facts, why would the Times illustrate his report with a broken-down school bus? Our answer:
Because this is a treasured standardized tale, a tale the elites have all memorized. But also this:
Professor Gordon enables that tale in his gloomy, selective pronouncements. This brings us back to our basic question:
Does Robert J. Gordon know squat from squadoosh about the public schools? Or is he simply repeating memorized claims, the Familiar Gloomy Memorized Claims all pundits know how to recite?
For ourselves, we lean toward the latter idea, in which this professor may not know whereof he speaks. Let’s run through the familiar claims in which this non-specialist seems to put his thumb on the scale, tilting things heavily toward Major Gloom, as Keller did last month:
Forget about what happens in college. Let’s consider what Gordon says about K-12 schools, the ones with those yellow school buses. For starters, has “educational attainment” “slowed to a crawl” in those schools since 1990?
Almost surely, many Times readers took Gordon to be making that claim, right in his opening paragraphs. But uh-oh! The professor never mentioned the data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the widely-lauded “gold standard” of domestic educational testing.
Those data show large gains in reading and math since 1990. The score gains by black and Hispanic students have been especially large.
The New York Times constantly lauds the NAEP as our most reliable program. Has the paper ever reported those basic facts about NAEP data? We will guess that it never has done so! And sure enough: on Sunday, Professor Gordon blew right past those encouraging data as he brought in the gloom.
Before long, the professor sharpened his claim about K-12 schools. In this passage, his work was fuzzy, and fashionably selective, in new and different ways:
GORDON: Then there is the poor quality of our schools. The Program for International Student Assessment tests have consistently rated American high schoolers as middling at best in reading, math and science skills, compared with their peers in other advanced economies.Before we note the professor’s selective data, let’s note his fuzzy logic. If American students perform roughly as well as their peers in other advanced economies, should that generate gloomy comments about “the poor quality of our schools?”
Logically, no, it should not! There is no obvious reason why American students should read better than students in Denmark, or Norway or France. Indeed, given various aspects of our brutal national history and our current social policies, it can perhaps be seen as amazing if our students, in the aggregate, perform equally well, even better.
But gloom about the public schools is A Standard Memorized Stance. In this instance, this standard stance is once again fueled by selective inclusion of data.
NAEP data say that our students are improving, but NAEP data don’t appear in this piece. Similarly, the most recent data from the TIMSS and the PIRLS, the other major international tests, show American students doing rather well in comparison to their peers in other developed nations.
Perhaps for that reason, results from the (more recent) 2011 TIMSS and PIRLS are routinely deep-sixed in favor of results from the (less recent) 2009 PISA. As with the NAEP, so too with the TIMSS and the PIRLS: Professor Gordon ignores their data, enabling the gloomy picture conveyed by that broken-down yellow school bus.
(For what it’s worth, Richard Rothstein and Martin Carnoy have argued that the 2009 PISA tested too many low-income American students, producing an unrepresentative national sample. Are they right? We don’t know. But the possibility of such errors helps explain why it makes sense to consider all major international tests, not simply the test which produces the gloomiest outcomes.)
Professor Gordon blew past the NAEP, the TIMSS and the PIRLS. In fairness, this is standard procedure in modern “journalism,” where the script demands that we generate gloomy claims about the “poor quality” of our broken-down public schools.
That said, Professor Gordon isn’t a specialist in education. Did he even know that he was omitting these data? We wouldn’t feel real sure about that; those encouraging data from the NAEP are almost never cited in elite polite company! And uh-oh:
As Gordon continued, he occasionally got the impression that he might not know squat from squadoodle concerning the public schools:
GORDON: Federal programs like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top have gone too far in using test scores to evaluate teachers. Many children are culturally disadvantaged, even if one or both parents have jobs, have no books at home, do not read to them, and park them in front of a TV set or a video game in lieu of active in-home learning. Compared with other nations where students learn several languages and have math homework in elementary school, the American system expects too little. Parental expectations also matter: homework should be emphasized more, and sports less.First, a relatively minor point: the second of those highlighted sentences doesn’t make sense. We assume this is some sort of typo. Presumably, that sentence should have said something like this:
“Many children are culturally disadvantaged. Even if one or both parents have jobs, these parents have no books at home, do not read to their children, and park them in front of a TV set or a video game in lieu of active in-home learning.”
That gloomy assessment would be accurate, here and in other countries. That said, it’s typical of modern script promulgation that some Times editor didn’t notice the fact that this passage, as published, didn’t make basic sense.
It sounded gloomy, upsetting, depressing! At the Times, that’s close enough for public education work!
The highlighted statement didn’t make sense. More strikingly, we asked ourselves this: was Gordon saying that public schools “have gone too far in using test scores to evaluate teachers” because many children are culturally disadvantaged?
He doesn’t explicitly say that here; here, as elsewhere, his writing is fuzzy, unclear. But in possibly seeming to make that suggestion, Gordon seemed a bit clueless.
Whatever one thinks of the use of test scores to evaluate teachers, so-called “value-added” assessments eliminated the problem he seems to suggest long ago. When test scores are used to evaluate teachers, Teacher A will typically be compared to other teachers with demographically similar students—a practice which makes obvious sense.
That said, Professor Gordon is often fuzzy when he writes about schools. As he continues to spread the gloom, do you understand what this means?
GORDON (continuing directly): Poor academic achievement has long been a problem for African-Americans and Hispanics, but now the achievement divide has extended further. Isabel V. Sawhill, an economist at the Brookings Institution, has argued that “family breakdown is now biracial.” Among lower-income whites, the proportion of children living with both parents has plummeted over the past half-century, as Charles Murray has noted.Do you understand what that paragraph means? We’ll guess it means that biracial kids don’t score as well as white kids do, and that lower-income white kids score less well that their higher-income peers.
Assuming that these claims are true, what do they tell us about the progress, or lack of same, being displayed in our public schools? Those gloomy claims don’t tell us squat—though they do spread the feeling of gloom.
Finally, the professor offers the highly familiar statements we highlight below. As he continues, so do his fuzzy expression and logic. Whatever that highlighted passage is supposed to mean, does Gordon believe it is true?
GORDON (continuing directly): Are there solutions? The appeal of American education as a destination for the world’s best and brightest suggests the most obvious policy solution. Shortly before his death, Steve Jobs told President Obama that a green card conferring permanent residency status should be automatically granted to any foreign student with a degree in engineering, a field in which skills are in short supply..It’s hard to know how conferring permanent residency status on foreign students with engineering degrees addresses the preceding claim about biracial and low-income white kids. But the professor’s logic tends to wander about in this piece, until he returns to Familiar Old Scripts—in this case, to the Familiar Uplifting Claim about KIPP and the Harlem Children’s Zone.
Richard J. Murnane, an educational economist at Harvard, has found evidence that high school and college completion rates have begun to rise again, although part of this may be a result of weak labor markets that induce students to stay in school rather than face unemployment. Other research has shown that high-discipline, “no-excuses” charter schools, like those run by the Knowledge Is Power Program and the Harlem Children’s Zone, have erased racial achievement gaps. This model suggests that a complete departure from the traditional public school model, rather than pouring in more money per se, is needed.
We’re strongly inclined to support the efforts of KIPP and the HCZ. But have they really “erased racial achievement gaps?” Depending on what the word “erased” means, it’s our impression that this claim simply isn’t true. That said, the claim was quite familiar in 2009. And it’s easily memorized!
On Sunday morning, the New York Times let Professor Gordon spout from a lofty perch. But does he know what he’s talking about when he talks about public schools?
It’s our impression that he may not. One thing is quite clear:
The professor’s sprawling, careless piece repeats a long list of Standard Claims about “the poor quality of our schools.” And sure enough:
At the hapless New York Times, some editor read that familiar phrase in this piece. When he did, a picture of a broken-down school bus flashed before his eyes.
Smoke was pouring from under the hood. A STOP sign on the bus’ door told us our schools are failing.
This editor didn't think about those NAEP scores, which have been shooting up. As a member of the pseudo-journalistic elite, there's every chance that he has never even heard about those data from our “gold standard” testing program!
On the gold standard of domestic educational testing, reading and math scores have shown large gains since 1990, a year Gordon mentioned. The score gains have been very large among black and Hispanic kids.
You’d almost think that would be major news. But you’re never told about those gains in this low-IQ, upper-class newspaper.
Tomorrow, a basic question:
When will the Times get off its aspic and do the work of a real newspaper? When will the paper abandon its current procedures, a form of adult abuse?
Tomorrow: Back to school, Dangerfield said