Stepping in for the Washington Post!


Part 4—The myths: By his own admission, Sam Cooke “didn’t know much about a science book.” Or even about the French he took!

Cooke was only joking, creating a playful musical hook. Still, he might have felt right at home in the modern news environment. It’s amazing how much of the “news” we receive is bogus, false or misleading, often in highly standardized ways.

One result: We the people don’t know much about the public schools! Even worse, most of the things we think we know are in fact actually wrong.

Rather plainly, many of these bogus claims are offered in support of political or corporate agendas. Other times, claims may be made in good faith.

That doesn’t mean they aren’t wrong.

For many years, the Washington Post has been in the education business through its money-making subsidiary, Kaplan Inc. For some time, the Post has also dabbled in the bullroar business concerning the public schools.

The Post has tended to promote standard lines about certain types of “education reform.” Who knows? Reporters and editors may have advanced these lines in good faith.

Still, the Post has advanced a lot of bogus ideas concerning the public schools. This brings us to a regular feature in the Post—a feature which hasn’t roared.

Each Sunday, the Post offers a feature called Five Myths. Someone takes some important topic and explodes a set of myths about it. The feature appears in the high-profile Outlook section

Due to the Post’s rather sketchy habits, it’s hard to present an accurate history of this weekly feature. Some Five Myths pieces which ran in the Post do not appear in the Nexis archives. Similarly, the Post’s own archive omits some of the pieces which ran.

For no discernible reason, the Post archive goes back to March 2011, at which point it stops. This may give the false impression that the feature started then.

As best we can tell from the Nexis archives, Five Myths has been a weekly feature at least since July 2010. Before that, it had appeared at least intermittently, dating back to at least 2007.

This brings us to the way this feature has largely ignored public schools.

Granted, it would be hard to restrict oneself to just five myths about the public schools. But how strange:

These myths have become more and more deeply entrenched within our public discourse. But the Post has made little attempt to challenge these dominant myths.

The Post has challenged sets of myths on every conceivable topic. They’ve published “Five myths about healthy eating” and “Five myths About Jane Austen.”

They’ve published “Five myths about Pearl Harbor” and even “Five myths about water.” But the Post has made little attempt to challenge the myths about schools.

The public should be told the truth about the public schools. Quite a few myths have been pimped rather hard, and they play a very large role in our alleged public discourse.

If we had a more serious press corps, it would be exploring these bogus claims. For today, we’ll step in to offer an imaginary feature:

Five myths about public schools!

If someone were to present such a feature, it might go something like this. That said, there would still be lots of room for other presentations:

Five myths about public schools

Myth: American students have been losing ground, or showing no progress, in reading and math.

Americans constantly hear this gloomy refrain. There’s only one problem. According to our most reliable data, this gloomy tale just isn’t true.

Ignore the less reliable, state-devised tests which have been widely discussed in recent years. Instead, consider the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the widely-praised “gold standard” of American educational testing.

This federal program has been in operation since 1971. In its most basic components, it tests fourth- and eighth-grade students in reading and math.

Education reporters routinely describe the NAEP as our most reliable testing program. In a remarkable bit of misfeasance, they almost never report what the NAEP data actually show:

In reading and math, test scores have greatly improved among all three major student groups (whites, blacks and Hispanics) over that 40-year period. The score gains have been very large in the last two decades.

One example: As of 2007, black fourth-graders were scoring higher in math than white fourth-graders scored in 1992. In a sensible world, that would be seen as extremely good, encouraging news.

In our world, it isn’t reported.

Especially in math, but also in reading, all three major student groups have shown strong gains on the NAEP. Routinely, journalists lavish praise on the NAEP but ignore these impressive score gains.

Myth: American students can’t compete with students in other nations.

In some ways, these claims have been overstated. In some ways, they’re simply untrue.

Consider the most recent international reading test, the 2011 Program in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS).

Only fourth-graders were tested. Among large nations which took part, only Russia outscored the United States. American students outperformed their peers in all other large nations, including Germany, England, Canada, France, Australia, Italy and Taiwan. American students also outscored the vast bulk of smaller nations, including Denmark, Sweden, Norway, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Belgium, Ireland, Austria.

On the international stage, American students tend to score better in reading than in math. In both reading and math, our fourth-graders tend to score better than our eighth-graders. But even as the percentage of minority students has grown in this country, U.S. students have been gaining as compared to other nations.

How did U.S. students fare in the most recent international math tests? On the 2011 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), American scores, at fourth and eighth grades, were “not measurably different” from those of Finland, which has long been praised as an educational powerhouse (see below).

The Asian tigers—Japan, Korea and Taiwan—do outscore American students by wide margins in math. But those nations outscore everyone else in the world in math; this is not a uniquely American problem. On the 2011 TIMSS math test, U.S. fourth-graders outscored their counterparts in Germany, Canada and Australia, matched those in Russia and England.

Myth: American students were once the best in the world on international tests.

In yet another gloomy assessment, it is often said or implied that American students were once the best in the world. It is implied that we’ve only fallen from this lofty perch in recent years, as our schools have declined.

In fact, international testing is a fairly recent phenomenon. There was never a time when U.S. students were measurably the best in the world, and their standing keeps improving on the three major international measures.

Myth: The United States is constantly humbled by educational powers like Finland.

“Finland chic” has ruled the press corps for at least ten years. Reporters take the junket to Finland. Then, they praise the small middle-class nation for its alleged educational miracle.

Finland’s students do tend to score very well on international tests. No doubt, there is much to admire about the nation’s schools and about its general educational culture.

But Finland is a small, middle-class, homogeneous nation. It hasn’t confronted, let alone solved, the demographic challenges found in the public schools of larger, more heterogeneous nations. And by the way:

As noted above. American students basically matched their Finnish counterparts in math on the 2011 TIMSS. Meanwhile, students from Massachusetts outscored the Finns by substantial margins in eighth-grade math and science. (Massachusetts took part in the eighth-grade testing as if it were a free-standing nation.)

In effect, Massachusetts is our version of Finland. It’s a relatively small, demographically unusual part of North America. Similarly, Finland is a small, demographically unusual part of Europe.

On these recent tests, the students in our own Finland outscored the students in the real Finland! There’s much to admire in Finnish schools, but the obsessive focus on Finland’s performance has been silly and grossly misleading.

Myth: Our “achievement gaps” are as large as ever.

Large “achievement gaps” do exist within American schools. Many black and Hispanic students are doing very well in school. But on average, black and Hispanic students still don’t score as well as white students.

That said, the achievements gaps have been getting smaller on the NAEP. Beyond that, it’s important to understand an important reason for their continued existence.

In the past twenty years, black and Hispanic students have recorded large score gains in math and reading on the NAEP. In large part, the achievement gaps still exist, even in smaller form, because white students have been scoring higher too!

The persistence of these gaps isn’t a sign of stagnation. The gaps persist because all three demographic groups have been scoring higher.

Those are our five myths for this day. What are our conclusions?

American schools could, and should, do much better. Almost surely, they will. It’s especially important that we find ways to help children from low-income, low-literacy backgrounds.

That help must start in the first years of life. These deserving American kids are substantially “behind,” in measurable ways, on the day they start kindergarten.

Everybody loses out when these shortfalls persist.

That said, test scores have been rising among all parts of our student population. And American students tend to outscore their peers from around the world, with the exception of the high-flying Asian tigers.

Why do we hear so many bogus claims about the state of our public schools? Routinely, those bogus claims serve corporate and political agendas.

That said, Americans constantly hear these claims. They’re often directed at public school teachers. The public gets badly misled in the process.

This is a failure of our press corps, not of our public schools.

Next post: In praise of Farhi!


  1. I don't know what to do about it because they're narrow and parochial AND they make broad generalizations about the whole country. What is that called? I don't even know.

    The constant casual mentions of teachers unions is one example. The set this up as "reformers" versus "unions" but vast areas of the country don't have "unions." The teachers unions in New York are not actually representative of the unions or associations elsewhere.

    They have to know that Texas or South Carolina are not hotbeds of organized labor, right?

    1. The two strongest states on the TIMSS test, Massachusetts and Minnesota, both have teachers union membership well above 90%. Of course, it's well known -- cough, cough -- that Finland's schools are heavily unionized. So much for the myth that teachers unions hold back educational progress.

  2. Actually, here in Alabama we have a very powerful teachers union, despite the lack of unionization in most other industries.

  3. Myths repeated by journalists for major national publications with virtually no effort to obtain genuine facts are not held in good faith. They do not deserve even that much credit.

  4. The rankings of States for education is also a myth. Follow the link. Although the information is from 2009, you can get the idea:

    Essentially, when taking into account the demographics of the student population, Whites in Texas outperformed Whites in Wisconsin; Blacks in Texas outperformed Blacks in Wisconsin; Hispanics in Texas outperformed Hispanics in Wisconsin (except 4th grade science). Since Whites outperformed Blacks and Hispanics and Wisconsin is over 90% White, Wisconsin ranked #2 and Texas (55% White) ranked #47, but digging in the demographics, Texas was superior in 17 of 18 demographic categories.

    "Lies, damned lies, and statistics" - Benjamin Disraeli

    1. Dear Texan: Perhaps your choice of damned lies and statistics is the wrong one. All the states choose different tests to administer, and if you don't compare based on the SAME test, you can manipulate your stats to whatever you like them to mean. The blog you choose to quote is doing just that.

    2. The statistics are from the Department of Education and use the same NEAP standard test. BTW, I am from a state that has fewer minorities than Wisconsin.

    3. For another view:

      Any comparisons that do not attempt to simultaneously control for all relevant variables (i.e., using multivariate methods) are suspect. That would include those of IowaHawk or the Mahablog. Google Harvey Goldstein at Bristol University if you want to read ablout how nonsensical educational rankings are.