Five frameworks!


Part 1—The mystery: Bill Keller is a major American journalist, one with whom we almost share the old school system tie.

In June 1965, we graduated from Aragon High in San Mateo, California. One mile down the Alameda, Keller was a student at Serra, a Catholic high school which later gave us Barry Bonds and Tom Brady.

And Bill Keller! Despite his selection of high schools, Keller built a career which took him to the top of the American press corps. In 1989, he won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the breakup of the former Soviet Union.

From 1997 through 2001, he was managing editor of the New York Times. He was executive editor of the Times from 2003 through 2011. That means he was in charge!

Today, he writes a weekly column for the Times, the best known American newspaper.

Everything we’ve ever seen about Keller tells us he’s a good decent person. Full disclosure: We’re strongly biased in favor of San Mateans.

That said, Keller is also a major American journalist. But so what? Despite or because of that fact, he offered a weird assessment in a recent Times column, even as the nation’s children got ready to go back to school:
KELLER (8/19/13): The Common Core, a grade-by-grade outline of what children should know to be ready for college and careers, made its debut in 2010, endorsed by 45 states. It is to be followed in the 2014-15 school year by new standardized tests that seek to measure more than the ability to cram facts or master test-taking tricks...

This is an ambitious undertaking, and there is plenty of room for debate about precisely how these standards are translated into classrooms. But the Common Core was created with a broad, nonpartisan consensus of educators, convinced that after decades of embarrassing decline in K-12 education, the country had to come together on a way to hold our public schools accountable.
Say what? What in the world made Keller think that we have experienced “decades of embarrassing decline in K-12 education” here in the country which includes San Mateo and New York?

Why would a major journalist write that? As background, let’s drift back to 1969, the year we finished college.

That September, we began teaching fifth grade in the Baltimore City Schools. Two years later, the federal government initiated the testing program known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the program which is often called “America’s report card.”

At present, only a fool would trust results from the statewide testing programs conducted by the fifty states over the past dozen years. That said, the NAEP has always been regarded as a whole other critter.

The NAEP has never been a “high stakes” testing program. Until recently, no one ever had an incentive to fake its results.

Beyond that, the NAEP is run by people who are technically competent and adequately funded. Statewide testing programs? Truthfully, not so much!

In part for these reasons, reporters constantly refer to the NAEP as the “gold standard” of educational testing. But as we have often noted, those same reporters rarely report the most basic data from the NAEP, except for the so-called “achievement gaps,” which can be used to paint a gloomy picture.

In part, that’s why ranking journalists like Keller often seem to have no idea about the apparent state of the public schools.

Has this country really “suffered decades of embarrassing decline in K-12 education?” Not if you go by the data produced by the widely praised “nation’s report card. To wit:

In 1971, we were in our third year of teaching fifth grade in Baltimore. In that year, the NAEP conducted its first set of tests, testing a nationwide sample of 9-year-olds and 13-year-olds in reading.

Two years later, the NAEP conducted its first nationwide math tests.

The kids we were teaching in both of those years were all “black.” Since Keller believes that we have endured “decades of embarrassing decline in K-12 education,” let’s compare the average scores of black kids in 1971 and 1973 with the average scores achieved by black kids last year.

To review the data in question, click here. Scroll to Figures 7 and 9 (page 16), then to Figures 23 and 25 (page 38).

In reading, the average score by black 9-year-old students has risen from 170 to 206 during those four decades. Allowing for a minor methodological change which occurred in 2004, scores have risen by 39 points over those 41 years.

Again in reading, the average score by black 13-year-old students has risen by 30 points during those four decades.

Is 30-39 points a lot or a little? According to a very rough rule of thumb, ten points on the NAEP scale is often said to equal one academic year. Applying that very rough rule of thumb, the score gains would seem very large.

Similar gains have been recorded in math. In math, the average score by 9-year-old black students has risen by 39 points since the first testing in 1973. The average score by black 13-year-old students has risen by 41 points during that period.

Those are the best educational data the nation possesses. But very few people have ever heard about these data. Apparently this includes Keller, a decent person who is one of our most important national journalists.

Most people, Keller apparently included, have never heard about the rise in reading and math scores on the NAEP. Instead, they have often heard stories which lead them to make gloomy statements about the embarrassing decline our pitiful nation has suffered.

Even as the scores of black kids have risen substantially, Keller thinks we have “experienced decades of embarrassing decline.” This represents an astonishing fact about our nation’s journalistic and political culture.

It represents an astonishing fact about the way our world works.

How can it be that people like Keller have never heard about the nation’s most basic educational data? We'd say there are several basic reasons, but in our view, they all boil down to one basic point:

In the end, your nation’s elites don’t seem to care about this nation’s black kids—kids who are, in the end, simply a bunch of good decent kids. Very few facts could be more plain. Few facts get discussed less often.

We’ve noted these facts for quite some times. Manifestly, nobody cares.

Manifestly, your nation’s elites don’t care about black kids, or even about elementary facts concerning topics which are widely discussed. For today, we’ll describe this state of affairs as “the mystery.”

Tomorrow, we’ll adopt a different framework. Tomorrow, we’ll explore the pretense.

Tomorrow: The pretense


  1. I have no idea of whether Common Core is good or not, but I think there's a big public relations campaign going on to sell it. I suspect that Bill Keller may have gotten his (false) information from the Common Core publicity campaign.

  2. Bob,
    I follow your educational posts with great care. I have a very personal interest.
    My grandfather was a grammar school principal.
    My sister runs a large urban school district.
    My daughter teaches kindergarten.
    My grandson starts first grade next Monday.
    Very, very, very, personal.


  3. Somerby bold faces these supposedly incriminating words from Keller: "after decades of embarrassing decline in K-12 education, the country had to come together on a way to hold our public schools accountable" and then at the end of his post documenting impressive gains for black kids, he throws up his hands in frustrated despair, as he intones, “How can it be that people like Keller have never heard about the nation’s most basic educational data? We'd say there are several basic reasons, but in our view, they all boil down to one basic point: In the end, your nation’s elites don’t seem to care about this nation’s black kids—kids who are, in the end, simply a bunch of good decent kids.”

    Good grief!! Isn't Somerby a “philosopher” by training, and doesn't philosophy include basic logic? If Keller had lamented decades of embarrassing decline in BLACK performance in k-12, then his ignorance of the NAEP data might indicate he didn't care about the nation's black kids. But the only sentiment Keller's actual statement might suggest is not caring about the nation's kids, period. Not its black kids in particular. But of course that wouldn't advance Somerby's objective as effectively.

    The only question is: did Somerby not realize the lapse in logic? Or did he just think his readers wouldn't?

    1. "Isn't Somerby a “philosopher” by training, and doesn't philosophy include basic logic?"

      knowledge can be used for good or evil, light or darkness, or for tdh, sophistry.

  4. Those who swallow the fake "Reformers" line like the Catholic-school-educated Bill Keller insist that the "reforms" will close what they describe as the huge and growing gap between black and white student performance. Or they hope that the public schools will be destroyed and the Catholic schools will be resuscitated for *white* students -- while Charters take the blacks -- who need special instruction is discipline, so they think. Of course the well off will send their offspring to Waldorf and Progressive prep schools like Sidwell Friends at $40,000 a year and up with no high-stakes testing or even marks in some cases, like they always have. So Somerby is on target here. Nice try, "Yikes!"

    1. ellen,

      i claim no special knowledge of american formal education, but your bringing up catholic schools made me wonder about what percentage of american students were going to catholic schools versus non-catholic, both public and private.

      turns out only 2.3 million* of the 81.5** million students attend catholic schools, 2.8%.

      obviously there isnt enough catholic school capacity to absorb a very significant percentage of the refugees from a possible future destroyed public school system, so why single out catholic schools or catholics as somehow being behind an attempt to take down public schools in america? the cost (to society) benefit (to catholic school interests) ratio seems too high.

      plus how likely is it that the catholic church would want to educate many millions of displaced non-catholics or that many of the displaced students would want to go to a catholic school?

      if you included all private schools instead of singling out catholic schools, i would think youd possibly have a stronger argument.



  5. Because it's a reflex at this point?

    I was driving and I have satellite radio, so I was listening to Melissa Harris-Perry. She was bemoaning her assertion that Americans don't know where Syria is (I don't know if that's true) and she blamed public schools. It's just what you say after "Americans don't know X".

    So I'm listening to this and while it may be true that Americans don't get enough geography instruction in public schools (although when they'll have time with all the math and english standardized testing they do I don't know) she has a cable show!

    If it were you, wouldn't you put up a map? If "Americans" don't know where Syria is, wouldn't that be a clue to news personalities that it's time to put up a map, since they're talking about SYRIA?

    It drives me crazy, because it's just a thoughtless add-on, the public school bashing. It's obligatory at this point. It's what all the cool kids say, because they're savvy!

  6. It won't matter though, Bob. Public school bashing is the favorite hobby of the rich and famous.
    The NYTimes hyped Bloomberg's reforms for years, and New York City under Bloomberg didn't out-perform any other urban area in growth in performance. I only know that thanks to you and Kevin Drum. Bloomberg failed.
    Public schools are their pet project. It simply doesn't matter if they make stuff up.
    They're completely unaccountable.
    Market-based reform has failed in Cleveland, Columbus, Toledo and Youngstown. Ohio just expanded it, in large measure because of idiots like Keller promoting in prestige media.
    They can't stop at this point. It would mean an admission that they were wrong, and we all know they're never wrong.

  7. Somerby doesn't care about our schools or our kids. Why can I say this? Because after two posts excoriating Bill Keller for the same column, he has yet to address the issue of the Common Core standard, the error made by Keller in presenting its development, or the correct rationale behind it.

    ou would think someone who professes to care about our public schools, who has been involved since Dick Nixon became President, would at least know or reference the second error Keller made. You would think such a person would let readers know about a major force influencing what schools teach and assess nationwide. We are sure Somerby is a nice person, and probably is just as upset about sports fans not caring about black athletes because they can't spot 40 year trends in batting averages, yards per carry, or field goal percentage because that ingorance proves everything.

    EB (gott)

    1. EB (gott):

      You remark, “Because after two posts excoriating Bill Keller for the same column, he has yet to address the issue of the Common Core standard, the error made by Keller in presenting its development, or the correct rationale behind it. “

      I'm very eager to be enlightened (seriously!!). Please tell us what Somerby didn't! Unlike him, you sound like you actually may know what you're talking about!

    2. The issue was not, as Keller suggests, accountability per se. Nor were test scores of 9 and 13 year olds (more correctly 4th and 8th graders) the issue.

      I will repeat what I said the first time BOB slammed Keller, when asked a similar question, with the caveat that this response is oversimplified.

      According to the literature of those promoting the Common Core, the decentralized education system of the United States was not producing enough high school graduates and those it was producing were not adequately prepared with the skill sets needed for future employment or success in higher education. In essence the American education system was not responding to the changes in the economy. If you look at all the documents used in the organizations that developed the Common Core you will find little reference to our "declining" education system based on testing at elementary or early secondary levels. Instead there was a desire to have a uniform curriculum that generated a measurable level of competence in pursuit of a goal of having universal high school graduation with a degree that qualified you to succeed in college or find a meaningul job with opportunties to advance.

      Emperor B (GOTT)