WHERE THE CHALLENGES ARE: Why Bill Keller said what he did!

WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 26, 2016

Part 2 in this series

Part 3—Possible sources of bias: Earlier in this extended series, we noted an interesting pair of remarks—a pair of remarks which appeared in the press at back-to-school time in 2011 and 2013.

One remark was made by Bill Keller, a major figure at the New York Times throughout his journalistic career.

Bill Keller isn't dumb in any way. Bill Keller is perfectly decent. In an op-ed column for the Times, Bill Keller said this in August 2013:

"[T]he 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."

For whatever reason, Keller believed that this country had just experienced "decades of embarrassing decline in K-12 education."

Two years earlier, Richard Rothstein, an education specialist, had written an essay for Slate about certain types of "education reform." Deep in his piece, he wrote this:
ROTHSTEIN (8/29/11): Central to the reformers' argument is the claim that radical change is essential because student achievement (especially for minority and disadvantaged children) has been flat or declining for decades. This is, however, false. The only consistent data on student achievement come from a federal sample, the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Though you would never know it from the state of public alarm about education, the numbers show that regular public school performance has skyrocketed in the last two decades to the point that, for example, black elementary school students now have better math skills than whites had only 20 years ago. (There has also been progress for middle schoolers, and in reading; and less, but not insubstantial, progress for high schoolers.) The reason test score gaps have barely narrowed is that white students have also improved, at least at the elementary and middle school levels. The causes of these truly spectacular gains are unknown, but they are probably inconsistent with the idea that typical inner-city teachers are content to watch students wrestle on the classroom floor instead of learning."
Say what? Two years before Keller's gloomy pronouncement, Rothstein had cited actual data from the NAEP, our one reliable domestic testing program. He referred to "truly spectacular gains" on the NAEP during the period in question. This created a strange double vision:

According to the education specialist, "public school performance had skyrocketed" in the previous twenty years. According to the major journalist, those same two decades had been a period of "embarrassing decline in K-12 education."

As we noted earlier in this series, Rothstein was right about those NAEP data. Beyond that, he was right about the one specific advance he cited. As of 2007, black fourth graders were scoring higher in math on the NAEP than white fourth graders had scored in 1990.

On its face, that was a spectacular gain. Two years later, why did Keller, a highly accomplished mainstream journalist, have such a jaundiced view of that same period?

Earlier in this series, we suggested a possible answer. Keller may have had his gloomy perspective because he reads the New York Times! As we noted yesterday, our major news orgs have long betrayed an unrelenting bias as they report on the public schools—a bias which favors the denigration of our students, our teachers, our schools.

Almost surely, Bill Keller had never heard about the score gains Rothstein cited. Within the world of the mainstream press, such data have persistently been disappeared. To this day, have you ever heard, in the mainstream press, about the truly spectacular score gains to which Rothstein referred?

Of course you haven't! Neither has anyone else; it simply isn't done.

Within the realm of the mainstream press, the score gains to which Rothstein referred have persistently been disappeared. Almost surely, Bill Keller's peculiar remark that day represents the poisoned fruit of such journalistic misconduct.

Yesterday, we cited four sleights-of-hand concerning test scores which are routinely observed in the press. These sleights-of-hand—let's not use the unpleasant term, "cons"—constitute a vast offense against public understanding and knowledge.

Below, we'll list a series of sleights from a recent, critically-acclaimed book—a book which lamented the way our pitiful kids stack up against the rest of the world. That book might stand as Exhibit A in the way the establishment press puts its thumbs on the scales in reporting "where the test scores are."

Before we list that book's set of sleights, let's ponder the origins of the press corps' rather obvious preference for denigration of our teachers and schools. Why on earth would the mainstream press hide those spectacular gains?

For starters, let's be fair. Every journalist thinks he or she knows that Bill Keller's statement must have been right. They think this because they constantly read such statements in our major mainstream news organs.

Such statements follow a series of scripts which constitute current conventional wisdom. What forces are driving this powerful narrative? Briefly, we'll consider four:
Standard human foolishness: Innocently but dumbly, we humans may tend toward an innate belief that we were smarter, back in the day, than These Kids Today. We walked ten miles to school every day. It was snowing hard all year. The road was uphill both ways.

Corporate interests: Presumably, corporate interests have played a role in fashioning the gloomy scripts our journalists persistently obey. There's a lot of money to be made from "privatizing" schools in various ways. Presumably, the corporate players involved in this world have worked to promote the gloomy scripts about public school failure which favor certain types of "education reform."

Political interests: Increasingly, the conservative world has adopted the view that government can do nothing right. This has led to poisonous scripts about our "government schools." Presumably, conservative opposition to unions is also a factor here. The denigration of American schools leads to the denigration of teachers. This frequently leads to ardent declarations about the way their infernal unions have ruined those government schools.

The role of the "billionaire boys club:" As has been noted in samizdat, a small group of billionaires have become deeply invested in "education reform." This includes Bill and Melinda Gates, Michael Bloomberg, Mark Zuckerberg and the Walton Family, along with several others whose names are less familiar. As has been widely noted, these players have lavishly funded education research on all points of the spectrum, helping produce the type of consensus which is so rare in our politics today. If you want to know why gloomy scripts about public schools get recited so widely, you may want to "follow the money."
One final point must be noted—our journalists' abiding love of robotic recitation.

As is clear in a wide array of areas, the modern journalist is only happy when he or she is repeating What Everyone Else Has Just Said. This preference for copying off neighbors' papers helps explain why so few objections are raised to the standard sleights-of-hand (let's not use the unpleasant term "con games") which drive our education reporting, leading decent people like Keller to think what Keller said.

Here as elsewhere, a fairly small number of billionaires have been driving our discourse. Their motives may be perfectly pure, but they have likely never heard about those "spectacular score gains" either.

They may truly believe that our public schools are a mess, full stop. But as they spread their money around, grateful recipients may feel the need to advance the derogatory scripts and claims which make these funders glad. (This is pure speculation, of course.)

Do these factors explain the ubiquitous denigration of our schools, our students, our teachers? We can't answer that. But when you read mainstream reports which tell you where the test scores are, you're constantly handed highly selective data and information.

They discuss the gaps, disappear the gains. They discuss the PISA, but ditch the TIMSS. They sometimes disaggregate scores, but only in service to gloomy conclusions.

Beyond that, they simply refuse to stop flying to Finland! This leads us to the peculiar place we'll describe as "Rothstein v. Keller."

It also leads us to The Smartest Kids in the World, Amanda Ripley's ballyhooed 2013 book about the way our pitiful kids stack up against the rest of the world.

The book was highly readable. In certain respects, it was even instructive—for example, when Ripley described what South Korean kids endure on the way to their very high international test scores.

That said, Ripley was quite selective in the data she chose to use, starting with her decision to disappear the TIMSS altogether. Did we say "altogether?" In fact, Ripley did cite a few results from the TIMSS, though only in selective fashion, in service to certain mandated claims about certain types of "reform."

That said, the TIMSS was never cited by name at any point in the book. Readers of Ripley's book were never told that there are two major international tests in which the developed nations take part.

They were told about the PISA, on which American students have scored less well. They were never told about the TIMSS, on which American students have scored better.

In our view, Ripley's highly readable book is strewn with sleights-of-hand. This includes selective information about the way our hapless white kids score in math; about Minnesota's allegedly brilliant success once it instituted certain types of "reform;" most strikingly, about Finland's allegedly brilliant success with its immigrant kids.

In our view, quite a few thumbs were on several scales in the course of Ripley's book. Does this keep the funding flowing? It certainly led to ecstatic reviews within our script-friendly press.

Mostly, though, Ripley's book extended the beloved tale about the wonders of Finland. For roughly the past dozen years, our journalists have been flown to that small corner of Europe to help us see how pitiful our own public schools really are.

They keep reciting a set of scripts. You might say they're pulling a Keller.

Do their familiar scripts make sense? Tomorrow, our series will end in the streets of Methuen, but also in Fall River and Worcester—and in the streets of Bridgeport, a challenging part of one small corner of the United States.

Tomorrow: Two small corners of the U.S. v. one small corner of Europe

9 comments:

  1. In addition to the four ways that Bob says the (false) narrative serves various groups, I'd suggest a couple of others:

    -- (allegedly) bad educational results have served as an argument for those who want increased school funding.

    -- these's a large number of education "experts" in various levels of government and in universities. These people have a vested interest in change, because that's what their job is. If the current ways of teaching are satisfactory, these people no longer have a function. Therefore, there will always be calls for reforming education, whether reform is needed or not,

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    Replies
    1. As you know, being from California, school funding has steadily decreased in our state. We once had one of the highest per pupil funding levels and dropped down to second to last before increasing to the middle of the pack. Given how often this argument is made about how bad our schools are, you would expect our funding to have increased NOT decreased. Instead, a specious argument that there is no relationship between funding and achievement has been advanced, at least by conservatives who want to cut school funding (and they have pretty much had their way over the past several decades, before Brown got in).

      On your second point, I agree that education has long been plagued by fads. However, the proponents of change have never offered test score improvements as evidence to support the efficacy of their improved methods. They instead offer anecdotal evidence and testimonials. These folks haven't needed to ignore NAEP scores because no one looks for (or knows what to do with) research results anyway -- it isn't the way new programs are sold to our school districts. Factors such as ease of implementation and availability of materials for teachers are more important than data on student improvement, especially since it is hard to show causality in such studies.

      Test scores have mostly been used for teacher evaluation and school funding. The vested interest there is in paying teachers less and undermining their efforts at organizing and improving classroom education while "doing more with less" in terms of funding. Wouldn't want those teachers and schools to appear too successful -- they might want more money.

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  8. We got one remark which was made by Bill Keller, a major figure at the New York Times throughout his journalistic career.  He is perfectly decent. For whatever reason, Keller believed that this country had just experienced. We can see the article of Richard Rothstein which is a Central to the reformers' argument is the claim that radical change is essential because student achievement.

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