The Kenneth Chang Challenge!


Part 2—The refusal to report: Way back in 1960, Sam Cooke released Wonderful World, which went to number 12 on the charts. He’s credited with the familiar lyrics, along with Adler and Alpert:

Don't know much about history
Don't know much biology
Don't know much about a science book
Don't know much about the French I took...

Cooke, who was already 29, said he didn’t know much about the subjects he studied in high school. But he knew what a wonderful world this would be if his girl friend loved him too.

The song, and the lyrics, have stuck. To hear the recording, click here.

Cooke’s profession of ignorance was of course offered as innocent fun, as a pop music hook. Less innocent is the ignorance shown by the nation’s ranking journalists about the state of America’s public schools.

Cooke was playful as he confessed his lack of textbook knowledge. If we’re serious people today, we’ll take no amusement from the ignorance displayed by the men and women who tell us they are our “press corps.”

Yesterday, we recalled Bill Keller’s puzzling claim about the state of the public schools over the past several decades. Keller seemed to say that we have experienced “decades of embarrassing decline in K-12 education,” a claim that is extremely hard to reconcile with the nation’s best educational data.

Keller is a very major figure at the Times. So is Gail Collins, the editorial page editor of the paper from 2001 through 2007.

As goes Keller, so goes Collins! Last year, we reviewed her horrendous performance in “As Texas Goes,” her new book. In the book, and then on tour, Collins grossly misrepresented the state of the data regarding the performance of students in Texas, a state where all major segments of the student population outscore their peers around the nation.

The best you can say is that Collins was lazy—too lazy to review the basic data about a subject she would discuss all over the country, data from the federal testing program she lauds in her bungled book.

Last week, we reviewed what can happen when leading journalists are so remarkably clueless:

As went Collins, so went a string of New York Times readers! They were sure that Ross Douthat just had to be wrong when he described the apparent success of the Texas schools!

Except that Douthat wasn't wrong. Those (liberal) Times readers were loudly clueless about Texas schools, like the great Collins before them.

According to his playful song, Sam Cooke didn’t even “know what a slide rule is for.” Cooke was playing, but the ignorance of these major journalists is a serious matter.

To consider the shape of the problem, consider a surprising report which appears in this morning’s Times, in the back-to-school edition of the weekly Science Times section.

The report appears on the section’s front page. And omigod! As he starts, Kenneth Chang subtly rejects the familiar claim from Keller:
CHANG (9/3/13): Conventional wisdom and popular perception hold that American students are falling further and further behind in science and math achievement. The statistics from this state tell a different story.

If Massachusetts were a country, its eighth graders would rank second in the world in science, behind only Singapore, according to Timss—the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, which surveys knowledge and skills of fourth and eighth graders around the world. (The most recent version, in 2011, tested more than 600,000 students in 63 nations.)

Massachusetts eighth graders also did well in mathematics, coming in sixth, behind Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Japan. The United States as a whole came in 10th in science and 9th in math, with scores that were above the international average.
At the fourth grade level, the United States did somewhat better. U.S. students came in 7th in science and 11th in math, again with scores which were above the international average.

(Not all nations took part in the testing. Some of the “countries” we finished behind were actually smaller regions—Northern Ireland and Flemish Belgium, to cite two examples.)

Chang’s basic assertion is correct. Overwhelmingly, conventional wisdom “holds that American students are falling further and further behind in science and math achievement.” It's constantly said and suggested.

Indeed, that is the general perception Keller advanced in his recent column. The perception may be widely held, but it’s quite hard to square with the facts.

What is the truth about American public schools? How well do American students measure up against the rest of the world? What kind of progress has been displayed in recent years and decades?

Answers to such questions are advanced all the time. Often, they’re offered by journalists who seem to have no idea what they’re talking about.

These questions form a major part of the American public discourse. But major newspapers have shown little interest in reporting the basic facts about these widely-discussed topics.

Instead, opinion is shaped by pundits like Collins and Keller, who don’t seem to know whereof they speak. And, as Chang politely observes, the drift of the familiar misstatements tends to run very strongly in a gloomy direction.

In his own piece, Chang adds to the frustration. He teases readers with a limited account of U.S. ranking on international tests, then moves on to discuss the performance by Massachusetts alone.

You can’t blame Chang for failing to do all things today. You can blame the New York Times and the Washington Post for the journalistic malfeasance they have displayed through the years—a malfeasance which issued last month in Keller’s remarkable statement.

Where did Keller get the idea that that we have suffered “decades of embarrassing decline in K-12 education,” even as domestic test scores have risen, along with our performance on international tests? In part, he probably got it from reading the press corps, which has specialized in gloomy pronouncements while failing to perform any detailed reporting about these much-discussed topics.

This failure to perform is especially striking for the following reasons:

As noted, the alleged performance of U.S. public schools is a familiar part of the public discourse. Within that discourse, our alleged “embarrassing decline” is put to all sorts of partisan uses.

Our “decades of embarrassing decline” are used to attack public school teachers. Those decades are used to attack teachers unions—to attack unions in general.

Our “decades of decline” are used to fuel the movement toward all sorts of “education reforms.” What you think of those recommended procedures, an intelligent nation would want its discussion of such proposals driven by real information.

Our big newspapers have refused to provide that service. The news about our public schools isn’t all good, but it’s dramatically different from the picture Keller advanced.

And yet, the public is constantly given variants of that gloomy picture. As Chang correctly notes, “conventional wisdom and popular perception” in this realm are extremely gloomy.

American public school teachers get trashed, even as domestic test scores are rising. Teachers unions are blamed for a problem which doesn’t even exist.

Black and Hispanic students register impressive gains—and the public isn’t allowed to take pride in their progress. And make no mistake:

As with health spending, so too here: The information which is withheld tends to serve the interests and/or policy preferences of some of the nation’s most powerful sectors. As newspapers like the Washington Post and the New York Times spread the gloom, the interests of certain powerful factions are served in the process.

When Cooke described his lack of knowledge, he was playing a lover’s game. The ignorance which comes from the press corps shouldn’t be viewed as a source of fun or amusement.

Will this be the year when our perfume-stained wretches take what we’ll call The Kenneth Chang Challenge? When they commission front-page reports which describe the actual data from the NAEP and from the major international tests?

Not all the news from those sources will be great, but much of it will be very surprising. That’s because many Times readers have come to believe the things Keller and Collins are saying.

They don’t know much about public schools! Isn’t it time that the Post and the Times got off their big fat ascots and put their slide rules to use?

Tomorrow: The pretense

Let's take a look at the record: Chang referred to the 2011 TIMSS, in which fourth- and eighth-graders around the world were tested in science and math.

To review the basic data, click here. Then click Tables 2-5.


  1. That song is going to be our new national anthem soon.

    1. Well, after "decades of embarrassing decline in K-12 education" what song would be better!

  2. Again, I'm still waiting for an explanation from the "free-marketers" for the good performance of the Russian Federation - have all their schools been converted from the socialist system to private?

    Or how about an analysis of how Singapore got to be at the head of the charts most years? The system is highly centralized and spends a lot of money. Wikipedia says "Education spending usually makes up about 20 per cent of the annual national budget" (of course there is not the distinction between federal, state and local governments there). Teachers are unionized and apparently highly regarded:

    Aside from lack of referral to actual test scores, the media seem to be generally incurious about how national systems differ and what might actually be responsible for differences. They are typically content to parrot the completely unsupported contentions of "reformers" about what is needed to cause improvement.

  3. This calls for parody lyrics, a la Allen Sherman.

  4. Some years ago I saw an interview with an actress who had just played a concert pianist in a film and the interviewer remarked on what a great pianist she must be in real life, based on how accomplished the actress's piano-playing had been in one scene where it was clear that she was actually playing (no body double or trick cinematography). The actress laughed and said, “Not only am I not 'an accomplished pianist' but I can't even play 'Happy Birthday'. What I am is a skilled mimic. So for months I worked with a GENUINELY accomplished pianist on the piece I played in the film (which is actually not as difficult as it appears to be) and I learned to mimic her movements with great precision. But outside of that, I can't play a note!!”

    My point: when people focus on one very specific thing, they can become remarkably proficient at it while remaining completely inept more generally. I think we can't overlook the role “teaching to the test” plays in the performance of some countries that are assessed in these international evaluations. The kids may know the things tested for, but little else.

    1. That is a comforting thought but I doubt it is true. I think you would have to know the specific questions in advance to achieve this sort of mimicry on an achievement test, without actual accomplishment.

  5. It was such a relief to see that K. Chang actually had a reasonable article about education in the times. Good luck to him in spreading the word to his colleagues.

  6. "One good thing about music, when it hits you feel no pain". R. Nesta Marley.

    I was 12 years old in 1960.
    History? La ti-da, la tid-a.

    Sam Cooke, a handsome man who loved pussy.

    Me too. Couldn't get enough of the funky stuff. Back in the day.

    Keep up the good work.

    I am currently an old man. Waiting to die. We all will.