New York Times meets the public schools: We've often asked if some sort of worm is eating the brains of our press corps elites.
Today, we ask that question again. At issue are two recent reports in the New York Times concerning U.S. public schools.
Each report describes the findings of a "new study." In each case, the studies have essentially revealed that the sky is blue, the ocean is wet and grass is occasionally green.
At the Times, major journalists seem to be stunned by basic facts which have long been blindingly obvious. It's hard to grasp how major scribes can be so totally clueless.
Let's start with Eduardo Porter's "Economic Scene" column from yesterday's Business Day section. Because Porter is substantially sharper than most Times scribes, his piece seemed especially odd and reduced our staff to tears.
Porter began in the mandated way, cherry-picking information about how little U.S. kids know compared to the rest of the world. This is the passage in question:
PORTER (11/4/15): The perennial debate about the state of public education starts with a single, seemingly unassailable fact. American students sorely lag their peers in other rich nations and even measure up poorly compared with students in some less advanced countries.Is that true? Do Americans students "sorely lag their peers in other rich nations?" Do they "even measure up poorly compared with students in some less advanced countries?"
Americans scored more than halfway down from the top in the last round of the so-called PISA standardized tests in math, administered in 2012 by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development to 15-year-olds in about 60 countries. They scored about a third of the way down in reading and almost halfway down in science.
Not exactly, no. Let's start with those cherry-picked data.
As any informed reporter would know, the developed nations participate in two major international test batteries—the PISA and the TIMSS. American students have done better on the TIMSS, less well on the PISA.
For that reason, it's a journalistic mandate! Like everyone else, Porter mentions only the PISA, disappearing the TIMSS. Beyond that, he stresses the PISA math test, on which our kids do least well, while banishing reading and science to supporting roles.
We've described this standard cherry-picking many times in the past. Here you see it applied once again.
In fact, American students outperform their peers in many rich nations, especially on the TIMSS. Porter creates an "unassailable fact" by disappearing the major test battery which tends to assail his claim.
After stating his gloomy, unassailable fact, Porter starts to brighten. He describes the study which has informed him that the sky is blue:
PORTER: In a report released last week, Martin Carnoy from the Graduate School of Education at Stanford, Emma García from the Economic Policy Institute in Washington and Tatiana Khavenson from the Institute of Education at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, suggest that socioeconomic deficits impose a particularly heavy burden on American schools.No Shick razor, Sherlock! In essence, here's what that means:
“Once we adjust for social status, we are doing much better than we think,” Professor Carnoy told me. “We underrate our progress.”
Over at least the past ten years, it has become tres chic to compare the performance of American kids to the performance of students from Finland. Finland's higher scores are then used to indict American teachers and schools and to heighten the demand for privatization, the destruction of teachers unions and other types of "reform."
There's a major problem with this type of comparison. Finland is a small, middle-class country whose schools are full of middle-class kids. There are virtually no immigrant kids, and there's little poverty.
Let's cite another factor. To its credit, Finland never spent hundreds of years trying to eliminate literacy among a brutalized minority population, as our benighted ancestors did. Our schools are still challenged by the cultural remnants of that brutal history. Finland's schools are not.
Duh. Because of our brutal racial history and because of our immigration practices, American schools face types of challenges which Finnish schools do not. One example:
Our schools are full of beautiful kids who may have arrived in the country last week, not speaking English and lacking the benefits of pre-existing literacy and schooling. Finland's schools are full of middle-class Finnish kids who grew up being read to in Finnish by their middle-class, literate parents.
These demographic differences create challenges in American schools which basically can't be found in Finland. For these reasons, it's hardly surprising if average scores in the U.S. lag those of middle-class Finland.
It's silly—it's also ugly—to observe those differences in average scores and blame our allegedly ratty teachers with their infernal unions. Still, in a country which marches to the beat of the billionaires' drum, this is persistently done.
In the report which was released last week, Carnoy, García and Khavenson "suggest that socioeconomic deficits impose a particularly heavy burden on American schools." It's stunning to think that a major Times journalist needed an academic report to clue him to this rather obvious possibility.
The full story is more complex than this. That said, we were struck by the apparent cluelessness Porter brought to this column.
Things only got worse as the column progressed and Porter interviewed Andreas Schleicher, developer of the PISA and one of the world's biggest blowhards. Porter reaches a pitiful low point when he quotes Schleicher complaining that "65 percent of principals in American schools say at least 30 percent of their students come from disadvantaged families, the most among nations participating in the PISA tests." The paragraph from which that passage is taken is just monumentally dumb.
Do American schools face types of challenges which may not exist elsewhere? If you need an academic report to suggest this possibility, worms may have been eating your brains.
A few weeks ago, the Times ran a news report about a new study whose findings were even more obvious than these. That new study concerned test scores from the state of Texas. To the excitement of Timesman David Leonhardt, the study "revealed" some blindingly obvious facts, facts we've been noting for years.
To Leonhardt, these facts were a major "surprise." We'll look at that piece tomorrow.
For today, let's note one final point concerning Porter's "unassailable fact." We'll work from this paragraph in his piece:
PORTER: The researchers started by comparing test scores in the United States with those in France, Germany, Britain, Canada, Finland, South Korea, Poland and Ireland. On average, students in all those countries do better than American children.Is that true? On average, do students in all those countries do better than American kids?
How did students in those countries do on the most recent TIMSS for which scores are available? Below, you see the scores in Grade 4 math.
France didn't participate in these tests. Canada took part, but just in the three provinces shown:
Average scores, Grade 4 math, TIMSS 2011Despite those "socioeconomic deficits," American kids outperformed or matched their peers in all the countries Porter mentioned, except the one Asian tiger.
South Korea: 605
United States: 541
For this reason, "reform" propagandists never discuss results from the TIMSS. They mention only the PISA.
Why would a journalist follow suit? Will anyone argue from worms?