WHERE THE TEST SCORES ARE: Maurice Sendak wrote a book!


Part 1—Today, the Wild Things rule:
Back in 1963, Maurice Sendak wrote and illustrated a book—a book which became quite famous.

The book was called Where the Wild Things Are. More than once, it has been honored as the all-time greatest illustrated book for kids.

Sendak's book involves the imaginings and dreams of a temporarily unruly child. Here's the way the world's leading authority describes the plot of the book:
This story of only 338 words focuses on a young boy named Max who, after dressing in his wolf costume, wreaks such havoc through his household that he is sent to bed without his supper. Max's bedroom undergoes a mysterious transformation into a jungle environment, and he winds up sailing to an island inhabited by malicious beasts known as the "Wild Things." After successfully intimidating the creatures, Max is hailed as the king of the Wild Things and enjoys a playful romp with his subjects. However, he starts to feel lonely and decides to return home, to the Wild Things' dismay. Upon returning to his bedroom, Max discovers a hot supper waiting for him.
For the record, children are supposed to behave in such ways! After Max's trip to the realm of the wild things subsides, he does in fact get his hot supper.

Sendak's book immortalized the wild ruminations of children. That said, a somewhat different array of "wild things" is now in control of large chunks of our American public discourse. That includes our public discourse about the nation's public schools, and about the children and teachers within them.

The "wild things" to which we refer are the narratives, or preferred story-lines, which often seem to control the work of our major journalists and news orgs. With amazing uniformity, major journalists make their work about public schools conform to these story-lines:
Approved story-lines about public schools:
Nothing is working in our schools. Our public schools are a disaster, a mess.
Miracles are being performed in the public schools of certain other countries.
Routinely, our journalists become wild things when they write about public schools. They rearrange and disappear basic facts to conform to those story-lines.

Nothing is working in our schools? In a back-to-school opinion piece for the Sunday Washington Post, Shepard Barbash recently penned a striking example of this familiar old chestnut. (For our previous post, click here.)

Nothing is working in our schools? Results of our most reliable domestic testing program seem to fly in the face of this familiar claim. But so what? Editors keep publishing highly selective pieces which keep denigration alive.

Meanwhile, are miracles happening Over There, in the brilliant public schools run by other nations? Ever since the year 2001, journalists have been flying off to Finland, the press corps' favorite miracle nation (public schools only). Once there, they permit themselves to be brainwashed about its miraculous schools.

Indeed, the search for the latest miracle nation is becoming a bit of a standard. In this recent piece for The Atlantic, Sarah Butrymowicz even suggests that little Estonia may be working a public school miracle.

"Is Estonia the New Finland?" the Atlantic's headline asks.

Journalists seem to love the task of gushing about the brilliant schools found Over There. That said, have you ever seen the way kids in Massachusetts, population 6.8 million, score on international tests, as compared to kids in Finland, population 5.5 million?

Correct answer—of course you haven't! Routinely, our journalists are highly selective in the data they present in support of the weirdly pleasing claim about the amazing schools Over There. By the end of the week, we'll show you some of the basic data which have been kept from American eyes.

Barbash's recent piece in the Post was an especially ugly example of the claim that nothing has worked in our pitiful public schools. In some ways, Butrymowicz's recent piece about Estonia was an especially fanciful piece about the greatness found in distant realms, Where the Brilliant Schools Are.

Meanwhile, as pieces of these types keep rolling off the assembly line, the American public is kept from learning about the impressive score gains being recorded by American kids. I know of no area where basic information is withheld from the public is so systematic a way.

In Maurice Sendak's famous book, little Max sailed away to the land where the wild things are. Our journalists tend to take similar trips when they discuss public schools.

Routinely, they seem to go to a place where the journalistic wild things are. They visit a realm where information must be bent to conform to approved story-lines.

Nothing is working in our schools? Over the next few weeks, we're going to give you a fuller picture of where the test scores are.

For whatever reason, the American public keeps getting misled and misinformed about this topic, which is widely discussed. Simply put, our journalists won't stop flying to Finland—and to the peculiar realm Where the Narratives Are.

Tomorrow: From Finland on to Estonia


  1. The Atlantic article is cute -- they think being Russian instead of Estonian constitutes diversity. They do discuss economic inequality without saying how large the range is (just talking about lower and upper tiers), then they say:

    "Early childhood education is free beginning at 18 months (when paid maternity or paternity leave ends). Everyone gets free lunch, meaning teachers might not know exactly what a child’s background is. College is free. Private schools, although an increasing threat to public education, are still a relatively small slice of the educational system. Estonian schools are often economically integrated, so poor and rich students are frequently in the same classrooms."

    These are change worthwhile to make in our society but it is hard to see how it will happen when public schools are funded by property taxes and funding varies so greatly between low income neighborhoods and high income neighborhoods. Pointing out that poor kids do as well as rich kids when the poor kids are treated the same way (at home and at school) as those rich kids just doesn't seem helpful.

    The other issues: (1) will test scores decrease if you focus on creativity and critical thinking instead of emphasizing facts and basic skills; and (2) do policies that help the top tier students also work for the lower tier students and if they don't, what should be done, especially when neglecting the top tier will depress test scores? These issues have not been resolved in the US or in Estonia, apparently.

  2. When Bob brought up Sendak, I instantly thought of his interview with Colbert. Effin' hilarious.


    Now I'll go on to see the point Bob is making in his usually abstruse - and dare I say it - entertaining manner.

    1. In case the link seems insensitive, her's another one. A good man.


  3. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/07/nyregion/eyes-on-chris-christie-as-bridgegate-trial-opens-this-week.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=first-column-region&region=top-news&WT.nav=top-news

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