THE LETTERS: Eight letters offer seven solutions!

WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 1, 2020

But does the problem exist?
"The blind men and an elephant" is an ancient parable.

According to the leading authority on the subject, "the earliest versions of the parable" date to maybe 500 BC. According to that same authority, the parable goes like this:
Blind men and an elephant

The parable of the blind men and an elephant originated in the ancient Indian subcontinent...It is a story of a group of blind men, who have never come across an elephant before and who learn and conceptualize what the elephant is like by touching it. Each blind man feels a different part of the elephant's body, but only one part, such as the side or the tusk. They then describe the elephant based on their limited experience and their descriptions of the elephant are different from each other...
"The moral of the parable is that humans have a tendency to claim absolute truth based on their limited, subjective experience as they ignore other people's limited, subjective experiences which may be equally true." Or so the authority says!

We thought of this ancient parable on Sunday, December 22. On that day, the New York Times published nine letters about two recent attempts to report on the nation's schools.

For background, see yesterday's report.


The first eight writers all seemed to agree with a certain gloomy assessment. This gloomy assessment had seemed to emerge from the Times' attempts at reporting.

"An extensive overhaul in the American education system is desperately needed," the writer of the fourth letter gloomily said. The other writers seemed to agree—but like the blind men groping the elephant, they offered a wide array of assessments concerning what has gone so horribly wrong in our public schools.

By our count, the first eight writers offered seven different assessments concerning what has gone so badly wrong with the nation's public schools. The writers all seemed to agree that the schools are in desperate need of change, but they didn't seem to agree on what is so desperately wrong.

What is wrong with American schools? The first letter came from a long-time education writer. She seemed to say that the problem is homelessness and poverty:
LETTER 1 (12/22/19): How long will we continue to beat a dead horse? When will we help families directly, ensuring that all children live in families with adequate minimum income and adequate housing?

Education reform has enriched many people. It’s time to start reform where it’s needed, directing the riches to children.

I’d start education reform tomorrow by giving all children a voucher for 10 free books of their choice.
And I’d work at making sure the children have homes where they can take those books.
This first writer would start by giving each child ten free books! Leaving Letter 2 for later, the third letter-writer had a different view of the problem:
LETTER 3: The stagnant reading test scores could be attributed to the larger societal challenge that fewer and fewer Americans read for pleasure regularly...[I]t is wholly unsurprising that a society that places a low priority on reading in fact produces so few proficient readers.
Why are American reading scores do bad? We no longer read for pleasure!

We quoted the fourth letter in yesterday's report. As this writer groped the pachyderm, she found vast over-testing in our schools, something they don't do in Finland:
LETTER 4: Our country has sought to boost test scores by introducing a multitude of standardized tests, essentially forcing teachers to center their class around preparing for these tests rather than teaching their students foundational skills. In Finnish schools, students are subject to almost no standardized tests, yet Finnish students surpassed American students in the PISA exam.
We test too much; mighty Finland does not! This was the third diagnosis of what's so wrong with our schools.

The fifth letter came from the "director of the Right to Read Project," a project which went undescribed. She offered a fourth diagnosis of our educational mess:
LETTER 5: [T]he one initiative that would have yielded prompt improvement in achievement is the “Reading First” component of No Child Left Behind, which in turn built on the findings of The National Reading Panel Report to Congress of 2000. Instead, it was engulfed by vendor scandals early on, and disappeared. Twenty years later, struggling readers at every grade level still await the report’s full implementation. For that, we don’t need any more “reforms,” just action on what is well established about how to make sure every child is reading on grade level.
Only Reading First would have worked, or so this writer said.

Letter 6 came from someone who had administered the Pisa tests to American students somewhere. He thought the low scores on the tests resulted from a lack of motivation and effort:
LETTER 6: [S]tudents whose parents didn’t allow them to opt out were often upset and annoyed about taking another test, especially one that didn’t affect their grades. Second, some teachers had discouraged students from participating in PISA by telling them it would be their responsibility to make up what they missed in class. I believe that, because of these factors, many students did not put their full effort into the assessment, and therefore the results are not truly representative of our students’ ability.
The groping of the elephant continued in Letter 7. The writer said the problem arises from the failure to involve our teachers when we plan education reforms:
LETTER 7: It’s disheartening to see yet another article about the “failure” of K-12 education advancing the claim that efforts to “solve” the problem are bewildering in their lack of success. What all those efforts have in common is their disdain for people with the most useful knowledge about how to improve learning and teaching: teachers.

[...]

Maybe it would work better if people who want to improve education asked teachers what we and our students need
instead of generating hugely grandiose plans that produce nothing but blame for teachers who had nothing to do with creating them.
The first seven letters all discussed the allegedly low Pisa scores. The eighth letter addressed Mississippi's rising Naep scores, but this writer seemed to offer a seventh explanation for our overall education mess:
LETTER 8: Apparently, educational theory has come full circle. When my wife and I were learning to read, we were taught to use phonics to decode unfamiliar written words. Later our mothers, who were public-school teachers, were required to teach reading by other newer methods. But they confessed to us that they never abandoned phonics entirely because the newfangled methods were less effective.

Now we are back where we started and should have never left.
Letter 8 seemed to agree that the schools are in bad shape. But its writer found a new part of the elephant. Why did we ever stop teaching phonics? It's no wonder our schools are a mess!

The reader will note that we haven't quoted from Letter 2. That writer seemed to agree that our Pisa scores were low, but he seemed to say that it doesn't matter as much as people may think.

None of these people challenged a gloomy basic premise concerning the state of the schools:

The New York Times had seemed to say that things are bad across the board, as we can see from those darn Pisa scores. The Times had emitted this mandated view, and none of these obedient writers had offered a word of dissent.

We've reviewed the first eight letters (out of nine) which the Times published that day. The eight writers groped an ailing pachyderm. They offered seven different accounts of where the problem might be found.

The writers offered seven explanations for why our Pisa scores are so desperately low. But what if our Pisa scores actually aren't so horribly low? Indeed, what if two large segments of the student population actually outperformed fabulous Finland? What if two large groups of American kids are outperforming every country in the world?

As is required by Hard Pundit Law, the Times had offered a gloomy assessment of the public schools. Eight writers stood in line to gulp the Kool-Aid down.

Tomorrow, we'll return to the question of fabulous Finland's miraculous scores. What if the bulk of our Pisa scores are actually better than theirs?

Tomorrow: Disappearing the actual problem

Friday: In a break with every modern tradition, the ninth letter gets something right!

26 comments:

  1. "What if two large groups of American kids are outperforming every country in the world?"

    Dear Bob, I'm sorry, but this is just too silly.

    For the fella who enjoys diagnosing mental illnesses in others, you've come dangerously close to sounding like a textbook old crank lunatic.

    Sad.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
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  2. On one day, Somerby argues that the test scores are nothing to be happy about because those persistent racial gaps still exist. On the next day, he argues that our scores have improved and there is no need to compare us with Finland. The next day, he tells us that integrating majority minority schools in urban areas to improve education is hopeless because there aren't enough white kids. Regardless of the day's whims, he says journalists don't know shit about education and whatever they write is wrong.

    Somerby never proposes a milestone -- are the schools producing enough trained workers to fuel industry's needs? Are kids sufficiently well prepared to get jobs in today's economy? Or are they failing due to illiteracy and becoming criminals? Are today's kids insufficiently prepared to use digital tools like cell phones to send texts and tweets? Did lack of learning prevent Trump from becoming President (as it should have)? Somerby never talks about what education is for.

    I am sorry every day that I learned to read, because I am trapped in Somerby's endless round of nonsense about letters and NAEP and PISA scores, and his whining about journalists who don't write the article he would have written. What a waste learning to read has been for me, if this is what I use my skills for. Fortunately, I read other things too. Reese's book club. Reese has now done more than Somerby ever did to enhance the reading experience of the multitude.

    Hanford said that 40% of children learn to read without phonics or other instruction, by inhaling the words and their meanings in the context of stories they are interested in. Phonics is for the kids who have problems, the ones who haven't been exposed to picture books from birth, the ones who are just following rules at school and don't care about what they are reading, knowing more about the world, interacting with others, who (like Trump) have no intellectual curiosity about anything (except themselves perhaps). Life experiences awaken curiosity. Human interaction with parents and other kids awakens curiosity. Poverty kills it.

    But good liberal Somerby never talks about poverty any more. He hasn't mentioned Malala in a very long time. He is doing a tedious job these days, earning his rubles and trying to waste everyone's time while attacking liberals and trying to put Trump in office (despite his impending removal from office, one way or another).

    It is sad when kids don't learn to read. But it is even sadder when a literate person such as Somerby uses his powers for evil.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Might as well start out the new year on the right track:

      On one day, Somerby argues that the test scores are nothing to be happy about because those persistent racial gaps still exist.

      One day? This is a constant theme of TDH, who is unhappy with people who ignore the gaps.

      On the next day, he argues that our scores have improved and there is no need to compare us with Finland.

      Our test scores, at least on NAEP have improved over the years. TDH says that comparisons to Finland are pointless, but not because of trends in test scores.

      The next day, he tells us that integrating majority minority schools in urban areas to improve education is hopeless because there aren't enough white kids.

      The next day? Do you understand that trends in test scores and integration strategies are different, if related, topics? And there aren’t enough white kids to go around in many of our urban school districts. Do you understand that the Supreme Court has made that a practical impossibility to fix?

      Regardless of the day's whims, he says journalists don't know shit about education and whatever they write is wrong.

      Judging by what they write, journalists don’t know shit about education, or testing, or integration. What’s your point?

      Somerby never talks about what education is for.

      Why not head over to a blog that talks about that?

      I am sorry every day that I learned to read, because I am trapped in Somerby's endless round of nonsense…. What a waste learning to read has been for me, if this is what I use my skills for.

      Good news. Firstly, you haven’t learned to read, at least not for comprehension, so what you’ve learned really isn’t much of a waste. Secondly, there’s no reason for you to use your nugatory reading skills to read TDH. Reading this blog isn’t mandatory.

      I am sorry every day that you learned to write.

      Fortunately, I read other things too. Reese's book club.

      First day of the year, and already I have a candidate for the saddest thing I’ll read all year.

      Check out Monica Hesse’s review of RW’s Book Club (WaPo 10/30/18). An excerpt:

      Pretend you’re a supervillain. Your goal is to lure a bunch of middle-class white women to an arena for a nefarious plot. I have gamed this out for you, and your best option is to charge them between $60 and $400 apiece, and tell them Reese Witherspoon will be appearing on a book tour.

      Essentially, the book is a literary companion to Reese’s clothing and decor brand, Draper James. It’s part memoir, part home design tips, part meditation on things such as the meaning of Christmas and the Kentucky Derby and lemonade stands and ceramic flea-market soap dishes. I

      As a book, "Whiskey in a Teacup" is — eh. I have read many worse celebrity books and many better ones. The weirdest thing about it is the conceit, organized chapter-by-chapter, that everything wonderful in life is Southern:

      Juleps are Southern. Road trips are Southern. Dogs are Southern. The “fight for fairness” is Southern (???).


      That’s pathetic — the book, the book tour, the book club, and your touting the same.

      Back to you:

      But good liberal Somerby never talks about poverty any more.

      Still haven’t figured out what this blog is about, eh?

      He [TDH] is doing a tedious job these days, earning his rubles and trying to waste everyone's time….

      Nobody is keeping you in tedium. Why are you here if you find the blog so worthless and tedious? And how much do you think Somerby earns from TDH? Do you think the Russkies are paying Somerby?

      It is sad when kids don't learn to read.

      Also sad: your inability to read for comprehension. Also being duped by a celebrity marketing scam.

      But it is even sadder when a literate person such as Somerby uses his powers for evil.

      Let’s put unicorns farting rainbows at 0 and Pol Pot at 10. Where on your scale of evil does Somerby fall? Feel free to use fractions.

      Delete
    2. I don't understand how someone can read a blog about Right-wing grievances, and confuse it with a blog about education.

      Delete
    3. I would put Reese's book club at 2 and Somerby at 7 (as an enabler of those committing the actual evil).

      What evil has Somerby been enabling? Among the evil acts he has either said nothing whatsoever about or tried to justify are: (1) caging of immigrant children separated from parents, (2) sexual molestation and abuse of young girls on the grounds that it is a Southern custom, (3) manipulation of an election in which Clinton won in order to put Trump into office thereby aiding grifters and criminals to loot our democracy, (4) destruction of our planet by rolling back all environmental measures and pulling out of the Paris accord, (5) willingness to throw women under the bus who have come forward accusing Trump and cronies such as Epstein of being sexual assault perpetrators and human traffickers.

      Somerby has a lot to answer for. His quibbles about NAEP and PISA are a deflection against accusations that he has been supporting the rape of our country.

      deadrat, you are wasting your breath.

      Delete
    4. On January 29, 2019, TDH published a blog entry entitled “Thousands more children were separated!” The entry discusses the cable news reaction to a story that had appeared the previous day in the NYT. That story was headlined

      Many Families Split at Border Went Untallied / Report Says Thousands More Children Taken

      Here’s what TDH had to say about Trump’s policy of separating children from their parents at the border:

      The report appeared atop the front page of the hard-copy Times. It concerned one of the most heinous policies enacted by the Trump administration.

      (Emphasis mine.)

      So when you say that TDH has either “said nothing about … or tried to justify… the caging of immigrant children separated from parents,” you’re lying. Just as you’re lying about the other four topics.

      Where does your mendacity fit on the scale where Reese’s book club con merits a 2?

      Delete
  3. "Eight writers stood in line to gulp the Kool-Aid down."

    These letter writers are not drinking any Kool-Aid. That accuses them of not thinking, of blindly following a leader in a self-destructive act. These letter writers are just saying things Somerby disagrees with.

    But they are demonstrating that they care about education and kids, and they are expressing ideas (right or wrong) that show thought and involvement in the topic -- that is the opposite of what one does when following a cult leader.

    It is Somerby who never expresses any ideas about education, never tells us what he thinks is the right way to teach reading. He has no basis for maligning these letter writers who are exercising their literacy in ways that go far beyond what Somerby ever does.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It is Somerby who never expresses any ideas about education, never tells us what he thinks is the right way to teach reading.

      So you're saying this isn't a blog about education and how to teach reading? Whoodathought?

      He has no basis for maligning these letter writers who are exercising their literacy in ways that go far beyond what Somerby ever does.

      The basis for the criticism is that the letter's writers' assumptions are wrong. And if their conclusions are thereby "far" wrong, it's no praise to say they've gone farther than TDH.

      Delete
    2. 'So you're saying this isn't a blog about education and how to teach reading?'

      No, its a blog about attacking liberals and defending DJT, Roy Moore, Ron Johnson, Devin Nunes and Jim Jordan.

      In short, it's a defacto Trumptard blog.

      Delete
    3. BTW, how is it 'media criticism' to criticize letter writers who are not professional media persons ? It's not, as this blog is not about media criticism, but about being a Trumptard while fooling the feeble minded into thinking that TDH is a liberal.

      Delete
  4. Which of those letter writers is claiming absolute truth?

    How trite is that elephant parable!

    ReplyDelete
  5. Why can't more than one person be right about something? Different suggestions address different aspects of a situation. How is that bad?

    ReplyDelete
  6. 'Eight writers stood in line to gulp the Kool-Aid down.'

    The only person who drinks Kool-Aid seems to be the person who claims to be a liberal, but spends his time attacking liberals and defending Donald Trump, Roy Moore, Ron Johnson, Devin Nunes and Jim Jordan. In short, Trumptards like Somerby.

    ReplyDelete
  7. I think Bob is upset, because many liberal opinion leaders are ignorant of the realities of education. He doesn't realize that they are ignorant in a number of other areas, particularly economics.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "... particularly economics."

      InCalculable Dickhdead, drinking his Arthur Laffer kool-aid, flatulates for the first time in 2020:

      https://itep.org/debunkinglaffer/

      Delete
    2. "He doesn't realize that they are ignorant in a number of other areas, particularly economics."

      Every Right-wing accusation is a confession.

      Delete
  8. The PISA and other international test results show one thing, which is that phonetics is not critical to reading. The highest scores typically go to Chinese-speaking places, where they don't even have an alphabet, while Spanish speaking countries, where the language is almost perfectly phonetic, mostly score below English-speaking countries. It may be that Chinese-speakers spend more time learning reading, although this is apparently not at the expense of math, at which they also score highly. Young kids actually learn new words at a phenomenal rate, whether they can be spelled or not. If they read poorly, maybe they just don't know the words, whether or not the paper words can be converted to sounds. If I were the Tsar of reading I would make sure that kids are really exposed to a large number of words and their meanings, both orally and on paper (or screen). This could be where the education level of parents and the peer environment become so important.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Robert Harrington at The Palmer Report discusses Trump's list of recommended books:

    "As a lifelong and daily reader of actual books, I couldn’t stop laughing while examining this list. The effrontery that a man who never reads would recommend a reading list for people who do is beyond credence. That sixty-three million people voted for him only reminds me of how many idiots who don’t read there are in the world, and why reading and education are so important. Anyway, Trump’s list inspires me to compile a list of the great golf courses of the world because, hey, I’ve never played golf in my life."

    https://www.palmerreport.com/analysis/reading-list-donald-trump/24096/

    ReplyDelete
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