Previous report in this series
Part 1—He states a remarkable fact: Denigration of American schools is one of the mainstream press corps' most standardized story-lines.
For the most recent example, consider a book review in the Outlook section of this past Sunday's Washington Post.
Two Sundays ago, in a bit of a back-to-school offering, the Post published a poisonous piece by Shepard Barbash, who isn't an education specialist. For our real-time post, click here.
The Barbash piece appeared in Outlook, like yesterday's review. Its insinuations were very familiar and very clear:
Our schools are an embarrassing mess. So are American teachers.
These poisonous themes are extremely familiar within the mainstream press. (Outlook published no alternate view when it published the Barbash screed.) Yesterday, these themes were advanced by Dana Goldstein, a youngish journalist who has become a member in standing of the mainstream, establishment education press.
Goldstein was reviewing a rather odd book. At least, that's what she said, at the start of her review.
" 'Substitute,' by the prolific novelist and essayist Nicholson Baker, is an odd book," Goldstein wrote. "More than 700 pages long, it covers just 28 days in Baker’s life, during which he worked as a substitute teacher in Maine public schools."
Say what? A novelist spent 28 days as a substitute teacher in a few schools in Maine? He then wrote a 700-page book about this brief experience?
Already, that sounds a bit odd. It would be odder still to suppose that sweeping thoughts about American schools could somehow emerge from such a sojourn. But Goldstein, who went to the finest schools, seems willing to reach that conclusion. (Goldstein graduated from Brown in 2006.)
Goldstein seems willing to take the leap. Midway through her review, she drew the conclusions shown below about the "series of dialogue-driven vignettes" with which Baker filled that profusion of pages:
GOLDSTEIN (9/11/16): Each of these scenes stretches over multiple pages, quotes stacked upon quotes. If there is an upside to plowing through them, it is that Baker has, like an investigative reporter, revealed much of the educational malpractice common in American schools. Many of his substitute assignments entailed working as an “ed tech,” essentially an assistant in another teacher’s classroom, tasked with helping struggling students. He thus had the chance to witness full-time teachers doing their jobs. They relied heavily on worksheets, flashcards, and playing movies and TV shows. The students had iPads issued (and paid for) by their schools, but seemed to use them more for procrastination and distraction than for learning. In one elementary-school music class, children were told to color in pictures of Beethoven, Bach and Mozart, instead of singing or learning an instrument. Few of the teachers demonstrated impressive intellectual capacity. One could not pronounce the word “coterie.” Another asked ninth-graders to reflect on how “Plutonic” love is depicted in “Romeo and Juliet.”"There were scattered examples of competent pedagogy," Goldstein loftily admits. For whatever it may be worth, all such moments in her review seem to involve teachers who assigned advanced adult texts to kids who may or may not have been prepared to tackle them.
Is it true that "educational malpractice" is "common in American schools?" Everything is possible! But it's hard to see how 28 days as a substitute teacher in Maine could let us establish sweeping judgments about the public schools of this vast continental nation—except to the extent that such judgments are already lodged in the scripts, the story-lines and the playbooks of the upper-end mainstream press.
On the whole, Goldstein fawns over Baker in her review. She somehow manages to judge that he "clearly loves kids." She even notes that he has "craft[ed] his own reform agenda," then proceeds to say what it is.
She fails to note how foolish Baker's agenda seems to be. She fails to note how absurd it is to suppose that a novelist could craft an agenda for school reform based on 28 days as a sub in a couple of schools down in Maine.
Is it true? Is it true that "few of the teachers [in those Maine schools] demonstrated impressive intellectual capacity?" Everything is possible! That said, we often come away from mainstream reporting, in which our woebegone schools are always a mess and our children are all below average, with similar thoughts about the capacities of our upper-end press.
This peculiar review, with its vast denigrations, provides the latest case in point. That said, it does follow the mandated story-line, in which our schools and our public school teachers are pretty much all a big mess.
Inevitably, Goldstein took her trip to Finland in December 2008, in her third year out of college. ("I visited Helsinki last week as part of a group of American education writers hosted by the Finnish government," she wrote in The American Prospect.) Her report about this familiar hajj was more nuanced than many others, though she did perhaps show the standard capacity for perhaps being played a tiny bit by the sponsoring government.
That said, Goldstein imagined what could occur "if American 15-year-olds could achieve the same high levels of literacy and basic math proficiency that Finnish 15-year-olds do." She was painting a thoroughly standard picture of the embarrassing gap between our floundering kids and the more competent students in Finland.
Three years later, in May 2011, Goldstein referred to Finland as one of "the countries that are kicking our academic butts." She did so in a piece for the Washington Post which appeared beneath this headline:
"Is the U.S. doing teacher reform all wrong?"
In 2013, she wrote a piece for The Daily Beast which ran beneath an even gloomier headline: "Why the World is Smarter Than Us." (Her piece was a review of Amanda Ripley's widely-praised, highly selective book, The Smartest Kids in the World.)
As Goldstein started, she gave voice to The Standard Mandated View about our hopeless schools. Instantly, she offered a gloomy assessment of the reason for our alleged failure:
GOLDSTEIN (8/9/13): For all our national hand-wringing about standardized testing and teacher tenure, many of us immersed in the American education debate can’t escape the nagging suspicion that something else—something cultural, something nearly intangible—is holding back our school system. In 1962, historian Richard Hofstadter famously dubbed it “anti-intellectualism in American life.”We're just so anti-intellectual! It's just like Hofstadter said! "Even Poland, with high child poverty rates similar to our own, boasts stronger student achievement and faster system-wide improvement" than the United States, Goldstein wrote, failing to note that she was discussing results from one of the world's major international testing programs while ignoring results from the other.
Without any question, American educational practices could be better. American schools could be better. That's especially true where the interests of struggling, low-income kids are concerned.
It's also true that there are certain major nations—mainly, the three Asian tigers—whose students strongly outscore American students, and everybody else's, on all international tests.
That said, it's also true that American journalistic practices could be massively better. Consider some facts which were already known by the time Goldstein wrote that gloomy, selective piece for The Beast.
Was Finland "kicking our academic butts" on international tests? Was "even Poland" boasting stronger student achievement? Did it really make sense to fly to Finland, or perhaps to Estonia, seeking the secrets of miracle schools? Consider some leavening facts:
Two years earlier, Finland had participated, for the first time, in the international testing program known as the TIMSS (The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study).
The TIMSS is one of the world's two major international testing programs. The other such program is the PISA (The Program for International Student Assessment).
(The TIMSS is conducted every four years. The PISA is administered on a three-year cycle. In each case, results from the most recent testing, conducted last year, are still not available.)
The United States, and the rest of the world's developed nations, routinely participate in each of these testing programs. It's commonly said that the PISA stresses "critical thinking" while the TIMSS stresses knowledge of curriculum. But the United States, and other nations, seem to have judged that both these programs are valid, instructive, worthwhile.
In 2011, miraculous Finland participated in the TIMSS for the first time. So did "even Poland." As very few people have managed to note, a bit of the bloom came off the Finnish rose at that time.
(Important note: As far as we know, Finland has a lot of excellent public schools. It also has a wondrously low-cost national health care program which American journalists avoid discussing in much the way Dracula avoids the intrusion of light.)
What happened when Finland and Poland participated in the TIMSS? We'll start with the way Poland performed, as compared to the United States.
We can only offer scores for Grade 4. Poland didn't participate in the TIMSS at the Grade 8 level:
Average scores, Grade 4 math, 2011 TIMSSGiven the way the TIMSS scale works, those are substantial differences. Two years later, Goldstein published her piece for The Beast, in which she said that "even Poland" "boasts stronger student achievement" than the United States.
United States: 540.65
Average scores, Grade 4 science, 2011 TIMSS
United States: 543.84
How does a journalist make such a claim while withholding such data? We have no idea. That said, please note what we've already said about the press corps' love for claims which denigrate American students, teachers and schools. Also note what we've said about the "intellectual capacity" of our upper-end press corps, especially in the face of preferred story-lines which often come from corporate elites.
(In her piece for the Post in 2011, Goldstein noted that she was discussing the views of the National Center on Education and the Economy, "a think tank funded mostly by large corporations and their affiliated foundations.")
Polish kids were soundly outscored by American kids on the 2011 TIMSS. Students in Finland did much better, but results like the ones we've just shown were disappeared as the week-long junkets continued to Finland, and eventually even to Poland.
How did Finland do on the TIMSS? Below, we're including the scores of seven of the nine American states which participated in the TIMSS as independent entities:
Average scores, Grade 8 math, 2011 TIMSSGiven the way the TIMSS scale works, the difference between the average scores of Finland and United States is rated "not different at the level of statistical significance" by the National Center for Education Statistics. That said, Finland was decisively outscored by students in two or three major states.
North Carolina: 536.90
United States: 509.48
Should American journalists be flying to Finland in search of miracle schools? Based upon those TIMSS math scores, journalists could more productively "Please come to Boston" or "Please come to Denver" in search of teaching techniques which lead to impressive test scores.
Why are journalists still flying to Finland, or even to Poland or Estonia, instead of taking Amtrak to Boston? Why was Goldstein still ignoring these TIMSS scores in 2013 as she crafted the latest piece about our failing or floundering schools?
We can't answer those questions. On Sunday, though, a very familiar old pattern appeared in a rather strange book review. Within the world of the upper-end press, it takes very little—just 28 days in a few Maine schools—to tell the public, once again, about the "educational malpractice" which is said to be "common in American schools," which are full of those low-IQ teachers.
Presumably, American schools could be a whole lot better. Before this series is done, we'll offer an overview of international test results from both the TIMSS and the PISA. (Also from the PIRLS, which is essentially the reading component of the TIMSS.)
Presumably, our American public schools could be much better. But again and again, our American journalists seem determined to tell an oddly unbalanced story about our schools, and about the children and the deeply unintelligent teachers within them. It isn't too much to describe this pattern as "journalistic malpractice." Let's make a clear and simple statement:
For many years, our journalists have seemed determined to mislead the public about the public schools.
Last week, we focused on somewhat peculiar claims about miraculous schools in distant lands. This week, we'll be bringing it all back home. We'll be talking about the National Assessment of Education Progress, the long-running federal testing program which is, by all accounts, our most reliable domestic testing program.
We'll start tomorrow with Richard Rothstein, a genuine education specialist. In 2011, while Goldstein was wringing her hands, Rothstein made a truly remarkable, accurate statement in an essay for Slate which was of course widely ignored.
Can Richard Rothstein say what he said that day? He spoke about the "truly spectacular gains" which had occurred on the NAEP over the previous twenty years. Even where the data exist, are such statements allowed?
Very few American citizens have ever heard a single word about those "spectacular gains." Hiding the data which lie behind Rothstein's statement has been an "odd" but ubiquitous practice within our mainstream press.
In our view, the American public deserves to be given the full range of facts about our schools. We deserve to hear all the news about our schools, even the news which is good.
For that reason, we'll spend the second week of our report in a realm where our journalists rarely venture. Before returning to international tests, we're going to give you a basic idea of where the NAEP scores are.
Tomorrow: What Rothstein (accurately) said