Interlude—Times profiles Ravitch: Readers of Sunday’s New York Times were exposed to a Familiar Old Story—an easily memorized, often-told tale about “the poor quality of our schools.”
The messaging was conveyed by the headline on the piece—and by a gloomy visual.
In the visual, a bright yellow school bus has broken down. Smoke is pouring from under the hood. Gloomily, the headline says this:
“The Great Stagnation of American Education.”
The writer, Professor Robert J. Gordon, rattles a list of familiar complaints about our public schools, the kinds of complaints a typical pundit could recite in his or her sleep.
Some of Gordon’s complaints and claims make sense. Some of them pretty much don’t. But is the general situation as bad as Gordon seems to suggest? His gloomy piece starts like this:
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.There’s a lot of air in that opening paragraph, partly thanks to the helpful word “much.” At this point, it isn’t clear what Gordon means by “educational attainment.”
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 said, Gordon’s claims sound very gloomy—especially perched beneath that bus. That said, is it true?
Has “improvement” slowed to a crawl since 1990? In part, it depends on what the professor means—and sometimes, that isn’t real clear.
Tomorrow, we’ll look at Professor Gordon’s various claims, which are rather selective and often unclear. For today, we thought we’d give you a look at a different world.
We start with today’s New York Times. On the first page of the National section, Motoko Rich profiles Diane Ravitch, who has a new book about public schools.
Kirkus has already penned its review. This is the way it starts:
KIRKUS: A noted education authority launches a stout defense of the public school system and a sharp attack on the so-called reformers out to wreck them.Say what? If “test scores are higher than ever,” why did the New York Times show that school bus broken down?
We’ve been misinformed, writes Ravitch, about the state of our public schools. Test scores are higher than ever, the dropout rate is lower, and achievement gaps among races are narrowing. The only “crisis” is the one ginned up by government bureaucrats, major foundations, an odd coalition of elitists and commercial hustlers intent on privatizing education...When it comes to education, notoriously plagued by fads, it’s always difficult to determine truth. Ravitch, however, earns the benefit of the doubt by the supporting facts, figures, and graphs she brings to her argument...
Kirkus can be wrong, of course. David Kirp, a Berkeley professor, is smart and very experienced as an education specialist.
Last week, we cited his treatment of Ravitch’s book. Here’s part of what Kirp wrote:
KIRP (9/4/13): In her new book, Reign of Error, Ravitch documents how public education’s antagonists have manufactured a crisis in order to advance their agenda. They deploy doom-and-gloom language to characterize the threat...Say what? Kirp makes the same observation as Kirkus, except with more detail. NAEP scores have never been higher!
Exhibit A in the sky-is-falling argument is the claim that test scores are plummeting. Ravitch shows that, quite the contrary, scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the nation’s report card, have never been higher. (The biggest gains in NAEP scores were recorded before the No Child Left Behind Act, with its fixation on teacher accountability and high-stakes testing, was implemented.) Nor do American students perform as badly as advertised on international exams—in 2011 tests of math and science, only a handful of countries did better.
Depending on what Professor Gordon is trying to say, it’s like we’re living in two different worlds! The gloom and the doom are very familiar—but Kirp says the gloom isn’t true.
Why the heck did the New York Times show us that broken-down school bus? That visual told a familiar old tale. But is that familiar tale true?
As usual, you won’t find out by reading Rich’s profile of Ravitch. In fairness, it isn’t the world’s longest profile. And it isn’t a formal review.
But Rich is an education reporter, and the profile is a featured news report in the National section. It just doesn’t make any real attempt to evaluate, or even state, the claims in Ravitch’s book.
Are test scores higher than ever? No such claim is mentioned. Instead, we get a type of soft profile, focused on Ravitch’s personality and life style. We get to learn about her pet Labrador-German shepherd mix, but not about what she has said.
Rich’s observations today aren’t wrong. But people, where’s the beef?
Tomorrow, we’ll return to the claims of Professor Gordon, who isn’t an education specialist. Does Gordon know what he’s talking about? Or did the Times let him blow a string of familiar old claims right straight out of his ascot?
Tomorrow: Professor Gordon’s various claims
Friday: What the Times should report