Notes on our broken discourse: Kevin Drum actually talks about our public schools!
We’re very glad he does. Among liberal pundits within the guild, very few others do.
That said, the American discourse is deeply broken in virtually every area. In virtually every subject area, the discourse is ruled by bogus claims which track to various tribes.
Our public discourse is tribal narrative, pretty much all the way down. Through no particular fault of his own, Drum’s post in praise of New Jersey’s schools helps illustrate that point.
Drum linked to this post by Vikram Bath, which starts from a strong basic point. Quite correctly, Bath rolls his eyes at the cult of Finland, an international cult which has finally entered a state of slight remission.
As he rolls his eyes at Finland, Bath praises the accomplishments of the Massachusetts public schools. Drum agrees with his overall view, but he says New Jersey’s schools may be a better role model.
We’ve criticized the cult of Finland for the past half dozen years or so. (The cult began taking shape around 2002.) We were glad to see Bath challenge this cult, but we were struck by two talking-points which lurked inside his post.
One comes from the world education elite. The other comes from the American education left, such as it is.
Each point is shaky or bogus.
First point: Bath doesn’t seem to be familiar with the apparent problems with Shanghai’s international test scores.
A few years ago, Shanghai became the new darling of the international elite and of the American “education reform” crowd. Within the past year, Tom Loveless has helped explain why Shanghai’s scores must be viewed with skepticism.
That said, the propaganda spread far and wide in just the past few years. Even as he challenges the cult of Finland, Bath doesn’t seem to have heard that there are apparent problems with the new cult of Shanghai.
(Note on Bath’s remark about China: There seem to be problems with Shanghai’s scores which don’t obtain with Hong Kong. Shanghai’s a special case.)
That talking point has come from the corporate “education reform” center. In this passage, Bath advances a bogus talking-point from the education left:
BATH (4/2/14): Rafael Irizarry notes that “Finland has less students living in poverty (3%) than the US (20%).” Additionally, US schools with relative poverty rates under 10% actually outperform Finland. If anything, it seems they should be learning from us—specifically from US schools with children who aren’t living in relative poverty. Suck on that, Finns. Murica. (The links refer to the 2009 PISA.)For starters, it’s famously difficult to compare poverty rates from different countries. But the real problem here involves the claim that “US schools with relative poverty rates under 10% actually outperform Finland” on the PISA.
Variants of that claim have become popular among Ravitch-style liberals in recent years. As we remember saying at Woodstock, some bad stats are going around!
Here’s the problem:
The statistic from which Bath’s claim derives is not a statistic about poverty levels in U.S. schools. It’s a statistic produced by the NCES—a statistic about American schools where fewer than 10 percent of the kids qualify for reduced free or price lunch.
That isn’t a measure of poverty! At present, about half of American students qualify for free or reduced price lunch. When we talk about schools where fewer than ten percent quality, we’re talking about a surprisingly small number of schools in our most upscale neighborhoods.
As such, Bath is comparing the student population from our most elite neighborhoods with the student population from the whole country of Finland. It’s a highly uncertain, flawed comparison. Except for the fact that it makes us feel good, the liberal education crowd should stop passing it around.
No one has trashed the cult of Finland any more than we have. But there are better ways to compare the performance of American students to that of students in Finland. The statistic Bath is citing has been widely misapplied and misunderstood. (He himself is misstating it.) But because it produces a pleasing result, a certain school of education liberals have passed it all around.
As matters stand today, we’re a deeply unintelligent nation with a deeply compromised public discourse. Our journalists are basically hapless. Our professors sleep in the woods.
Within this floundering public culture, bogus talking-points aren’t just for Rush any more. Slowly but surely, we pseudo-liberals have been producing a boatload of bullroar too.
Warning! Test scores from Shanghai should be approached with caution. But the other claim which Bath advanced has come from the funny farm too.
In virtually every subject area, this is how our discourse works. It’s bungled or bogus talking-points pretty much all the way down.