WHERE THE TEST SCORES ARE: Explaining what Bill Keller said!


Interlude—One-week hiatus looms: On Wednesday morning, we'll be leaving our sprawling campus on a mission of national import.

We'll be taking part in a symposium for federal managers at an undisclosed location in Aberdeen, South Dakota. For that reason, our four-week series, Where the Test Scores Are, will be on hiatus until next Monday.

Next week, we'll proceed with the third week in our series, "Where the Achievement Gaps Are." Today, we'll jump the gun on that topic a tad—and we'll explain what Bill Keller said.

As we noted in last Friday's report, Keller is a major American journalist. In 1989, he won a Pulitzer prize for his foreign reporting. From 2003 through 2011, he was executive editor of the New York Times, a well-known American newspaper.

Keller is perfectly smart (it sometimes seems that some journalists aren't); he's also thoroughly decent. But in August 2013, he made this peculiar highlighted statement in an opinion column in the New York Times:
KELLER (8/19/13): The Common Core, a grade-by-grade outline of what children should know to be ready for college and careers, made its debut in 2010, endorsed by 45 states. It is to be followed in the 2014-15 school year by new standardized tests that seek to measure more than the ability to cram facts or master test-taking tricks...

This is an ambitious undertaking, and there is plenty of room for debate about precisely how these standards are translated into classrooms. But the Common Core was created with a broad, nonpartisan consensus of educators, convinced that after decades of embarrassing decline in K-12 education, the country had to come together on a way to hold our public schools accountable.
As of back-to-school 2013, why did Keller believe that the United States had experienced "decades of embarrassing decline in K-12 education?"

As we've noted in the past two weeks—as we've noted for the past many years—our most reliable data seem to contradict or challenge that claim. So why did Keller believe that claim? We offered an excuse for the lifelong Timesman:

He has a good excuse, we said. He reads the New York Times!

Did Keller hold a false or grossly misleading belief because he reads the Times? In yesterday's high-profile Sunday Review, the Times presented the latest example of what we had in mind.

We refer to six letters the Times published about a recent front-page news report. That report described a large achievement gap between some Connecticut schools.

We expect to start with that news report when our series resumes next week. Briefly, though, the report describes a large gap in academic achievement between students in low-income Bridgeport, Connecticut and their counterparts in high-income Fairfield, just a few miles away.

(Despite the presence of cities like Bridgeport, Fairfield County ranked sixth in the U.S. in per capita income as of 2005. Fairfield County's so-called "Gold Coast" is extremely wealthy.)

Those achievement gaps are real. So are some of the problems the Times news report addressed.

Those gaps are real—and they're very important. But the six letters in yesterday's Times help explain the puzzling claim described as "Keller's folly."

As we'll note all next week, our achievement gaps remain substantial and real. But so are the large score gains recorded by all major parts of the student population over the past twenty years.

The gaps remain, though they've gotten smaller, because all major population groups have shown roughly similar gains. But as we've told you again and again, newspapers like the New York Times impose a brutal journalistic regime when they report on the public schools:

They constantly report the gaps—and they constantly disappear the gains! This leads intelligent, well-intentioned people like Keller to fundamentally misunderstand the current state of play.

Yesterday, the New York Times published six letters about its news report. Several thundered about the gaps. None of them mentioned the gains.

A cynic might think that the letters came straight from a corporatist spin machine. The letters reinforced the sense of gloom which Keller so vividly expressed. None of them explained the basic reason why the gaps persist.

For today, we'll only consider one of yesterday's letters. Below, you see a textbook example of the deeply misleading way this situation is presented in newspapers like the Times:
LETTER TO THE NEW YORK TIMES (9/18/16): The educational reforms of the past decade, with its Common Core curriculum, reliance on high-stakes tests and the new world of digital technology, and calls for more charter schools, have done little to end the achievement gaps in the United States. The Stanford Education Data Archive, based on school district performances on the National Assessment of Educational Progress across the country, found that racial achievement gaps continue in nearly every district. In fact, I believe that these reforms have only exacerbated the problems associated with segregated schools.

So what is to be done? States should dissolve current local school districts and collapse them into districts that integrate urban districts with suburban districts; establish per-pupil funding levels; and provide for extended social services for families in poverty, including parent education.

Until we muster the political leadership and the courage to really address the needs of disadvantaged children and integrate our schools, the current crop of educational reforms will do little to improve the quality of public education, and schools will remain highly segregated.
Why did Keller say what he did? Just take a look at that letter!

The letter says that recent reforms "have done little to end the achievement gaps in the United States." It accurately says that "racial achievement gaps continue in nearly every district."

With the elaborate moral grandeur so commonly seen in this broken discussion, the writer reports the gaps—but fails to mention the gains! He fails to say why those achievement gaps remain, despite the large score gains recorded by black and Hispanic kids.

In fact, he fails to mention those gains at all! His letter provides a perfect example of our account of the way the reporting works in this area.

Bill Keller isn't an education specialist. When it comes to public schools, he's probably a bit like Will Rogers: he only knows what he reads in the papers.

When he reads the New York Times, he sees laments about the gaps but never hears about the gains. In all likelihood, he has never heard about the large score gains recorded by all groups of American students during the years he cited.

When we present the third week in this series, we expect to start with Bridgeport and Fairfield. Yesterday, the Times published six letters about those neighboring districts.

On our scorecard, two of the letters—those from Yonkers and Los Angeles—presented "non-partisan" reactions to the original news report. The letters focused on the funding disparities which formed the basis for much of the Times report.

The other four letters all seemed to come from a screeching corporatist playbook. We heard insinuations about our teachers (though no one mentioned their fiendish unions). We heard about basic educational practices which were said to be foolish.

In the first letter, we were offered a statistical claim about failing students and where they're found which seems highly implausible. In the final letter, we received a final, familiar blast. We were told that "Judge Thomas G. Moukawsher’s sweeping critique of Connecticut schools did, indeed, sound like an indictment of school failure nationwide...Children begin life curious and enthusiastic about learning, but schools have failed to nurture their intense urge to learn."

As usual, we were told that our public schools have failed nationwide. We weren't told about the large score gains recorded by all groups of kids, including black and Hispanic kids.

In yesterday's letters, New York Times readers were told, once again, about our achievement gaps. But how strange! In the course of publishing six different letters, no one mentioned the large score gains recorded by black and Hispanic kids over the decades in question.

Bill Keller's been reading such work for years. So has everyone who subscribes to the New York Times or the Washington Post.
Liberal journalists never challenge this grossly misleading framework. Most plainly put: For all our ballyhooed moral greatness, we liberals don't seem to care.

Bill Keller's been reading such work for years. It represents a type of journalistic malpractice.

It constitutes a journalistic offense against the American discourse, against the public interest. Our four-week report about that offense will resume next week.

Coming next week: Where the Achievement Gaps Are

Starting October 3: Where the Deceptions Are


  1. Today the Huffington Post helps elect Trump with a story entitled "Why Hillary Lost" in which it speculates on who will be to blame if she loses.

    Among the several "narratives" being spread about Hillary is the one that she is a bad campaigner, that she is a "gaffe machine" and she has had the election sewn up only to throw it away, that there is little enthusiasm among her supporters. While Trump is portrayed as a genius at manipulating the press and his audiences. This is more sexist garbage.

    The best thing to read this morning is Kevin Drum's list of reasons for progressives to support Hillary.

    As Somerby likes to point out, the media always blames others for its own failures. Huffington Post neglected to put its own relentless attack on Hillary on its list of reasons.

    1. And this has absolutely zero to do with the post. You sure you're at the right blog?

    2. Journalistic malpractice is on topic here.

    3. A 4:53 PM - don't reach to far. you might strain something.

  2. Back at Old Cow College students were required to have at least 12 hours of physical education to graduate. Team sports and the parallel bars nearly finished me so I had to take courses in bowling, aikido, and other wussy endeavors. I sucked at everything but I guess bowlers have a thing about trophies. I was awarded a small statuette for "Most Improved."

    I was the absolute worst in class, but look at those gains.

    1. If that's your rebuttal, then Bob wins in a landslide.

  3. About a week ago, I read a Facebook post from a mother that defended charter schools. She pointed out that her kids were better readers now, and got top grades in most subjects, including math, since they switched from public to charter schools. She told how she read to her kids when they were small, made sure there were plenty of books in the house, and had down time for social media and surfing. She mentioned that many of her neighbors did the same, and they were involved in school meetings and activities, and talked to the teachers about their children.
    It’s great to know that charter schools are so much better than public schools.

    1. Is there a charter version of Facebook?

    2. Is this a joke?

    3. This is:

      "We'll be taking part in a symposium for federal managers at an undisclosed location in Aberdeen, South Dakota."

  4. No, it's not a joke, but it is ironical for a parent to credit a type of school instead of her kids' good fortune.

  5. IMHO the key to charter schools isn't that they're necessarily better, but that they provide an alternative. Each child and each school situation is different. When my older daughter was in a situation that didn't work for her, we put her in private school for a couple of years. Poor families should have options, just as rich ones do.

    1. You and your silly anecdotes.

      Charter schools have no business receiving taxpayer money. Excluding them from public funding would not limit their utility as an alternative to public schools. They should be privately-funded private schools, and the more the merrier. Currently, they constitute a proliferating grift with the primary to make a profit while wiping out public schools.

      Your last sentence is simply a non-sequitur.

    2. "Your last sentence is simply a non-sequitur."

      Your concern trolling is noted.

  6. Charter schools, like private schools, are only as good as their oversight. An important virtue of public schools is that they are part of the government infrastructure and generally have considerable oversight and accountability, both to parents and to taxpayers/the public. As a result, teachers are more likely to be well-trained and credentialed, money goes toward resources as it is supposed to, and students are tested and otherwise assessed to make sure they are benefitting from instruction. Public schools are also coordinated with a state's public higher education, so students are offered the courses needed for state university admission and counselors can advise them accurately. These things are sometimes but not always true in private schools. Charter schools vary, depending on how they are implemented.

    Remember the fiasco in California when private religious high schools didn't teach evolution and UCLA refused to admit students from them? This happens on a larger scale when kids are not offered the high school science, math or language courses needed to qualify for college admission. Doing well in such courses is meaningless if they don't even exist. Similar disparities occur up and down the line when curriculum is not articulated -- hence common core.

    Some parents find the discipline and uniforms appealing of charter schools, the get tough attitude reassuring. I'm not sure what they think they are preparing their kids for -- to be cogs in a totalitarian state? It strikes me as very creepy when kids are asked to behave in rigidly authoritarian ways that have little to do with learning anything except how to sit down and shut up.

    1. If public schools are failing and getting worse, how is it that there are increasing numbers of students being graduated from college? More than ever before.

    2. The best oversight comes from parents IMHO, Parents are more concerned about their children than any bureaucrat. Of course, bureaucrats may have more expertise than most parents. But, bureaucratic oversight can be inadequate for various reasons:
      -- Bureaucrats may have additional concerns, like balancing the school by ethnic group.
      -- A bureaucrat who screwed up may be inclined to hide the problem for the sake of his career. E.g., the Veterans Administration Hospital scandal.
      -- A bureaucrat may not be able to fix a student's problematic school situation, but a parent can move his child away from that school (as my wife and I did.)
      -- A bureaucrat may be more concerned about other constituencies, such as teachers' unions or administrative staff.
      -- A bureaucrat may be overworked and simply not have time to deal with each and every student.

    3. I totally disagree. Parents need to provide oversight but you also need people like budget auditors, assessment specialists and good management because parents are not experts in any of these things and don't typically have access to the info needed to keep tabs on a school.

      Balancing schools in terms of diversity is good for kids because kids need to learn to function in a multicultural society and they learn that by interacting and making friends with kids from all backgrounds.

      You are using the loaded word "bureaucrat" instead of manager or supervisor. No one would seriously expect any organization to run itself without competent management. Occasional bad managers don't mean we should abandon management altogether.

      Good counselors and other kinds of specialists (educational psychologists, special ed teachers, nurses) can help resolve problems without having to dislocate the child. It is pretty extreme for a parent to take a child out of school entirely. Often, the child's problems go with him and don't get solved at all because the school doesn't get a chance to address them.

      There is no harm in a manager being concerned about all constituencies. If the teachers aren't happy how can the school function well? Same with administrative staff. Good management means addressing the concerns of everyone so that the school functions well. Ignoring the concerns of teachers or staff seems like a bad way to run a school and I seriously doubt effective charter schools do that, any more than good public schools would.

      Bureaucrats don't deal with each and every student. If they did, when would they have time to run the school efficiently? Teachers and aides deal with each and every student. You know that, don't you?

      The best oversight comes from people who know what they are doing. Selecting people based on religious views or political ideology or cost factors (how cheap they come) or willingness to follow a prescribed methodology doesn't ensure you will get the people who know anything about educating kids and running a school. That is my main beef with charter schools. Their focus is on something besides educating kids.

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