Part 2—Explaining the state of the crisis: Is the United States confronting an “education crisis?”
Crisis is in the eye of the beholder; there is no objective way to determine if a “crisis” exists. But when Gail Collins wrote Saturday’s column about Mitt Romney’s education proposals, quite a few readers seemed pretty sure that we’re in a bad downward spiral.
The column generated 389 comments. Fairly early in the chain, a man in Seattle described the way things have gone wrong since the good old days—since the time when he and his elevated type were gracing the public schools:
COMMENTER FROM SEATTLE: I often ponder the education crisis and wonder what happened. I grew up in a blue collar neighborhood and went K-12 to public schools in western NY, graduating in the 1950s. I continue to believe that I received an outstanding education. It formed the foundation that allowed me to earn four university degrees in physics and engineering including two masters from MIT. A large percentage of my high school classmates had similar or far greater success.We were so much smarter and better! Similar comments litter the thread as Collins’ highly self-impressed readers describe their own brilliant ways.
The two major factors that stand out in mind are that (1) we read books and (2) our parents took education seriously. I also had the personal incentive to show that I was as good as the kids that lived in palatial homes and whose parents had college degrees, and students that got good grades were respected at my school.
A reader in Hawaii lamented the sorry decline in West Virginia’s public schools. And a gloomy Gus in the Sunshine State discussed “the dumbing-down” of the whole country, which he called “amerikuh:”
COMMENTER IN HAWAII: I had a similar experience in public schools in West Virginia in the sixties: A stellar education that enabled me to attend an Ivy and sit slack-jawed at how under-educated (and uninterested, a la W) many of the legacy admissions were. My sister, a tea partier, to this day touts the "fiscal responsibility" of West Virginia state government that has kept it in the black. Meanwhile, the state now ranks dead last in the nation in % of college graduates and 47th (behind the predictable Alabama, Arkansas, and Mississippi) in high school graduates. If I were living in the state (thankfully, I am not), and I had kids, I'd probably begrudgingly have to send them to private schools. And this is tragic, because the chief bonding experience across social classes and backgrounds is now gone forever.Others lamented about the varied shortcomings of These Kids Today. “The problem isn't that our children are not as science or tech savvy as possible,” one reader explained, “but that they often can't read, write decently or understand complex ideas.” Also this, from New York: “Too many of today's graduates have been taught a lot of things but can't make change in their heads...or have a clue about basic civics—the kind that makes for informed voters.” Meanwhile, an informed voter from Montana recalled the 1983 report, A Nation at Risk—and a Floridian affirmed his gloomy assessment about our failure to react to its warnings:
COMMENTER FROM FLORIDA: I'm with you all the way, even on specific years of public school attendance and graduation (and only public schools, even through grad school). I went on to teach chemistry at a public university. I recall toward the end of the '70s a very real pressure (from administrators) that had the effect of lowering grading standards in the university. I then went on to teach at a couple of top-notch private secondary schools and found the trend continuing right on through to my retiring from teaching in 2007. The sources of the pressure had become more widespread, including parents, students themselves, as well as administrators. Ah, the dumbing-down of amerikuh.
COMMENTER IN MONTANA: The truth is that we do know what to do to provide a quality education for our children. But somehow the people who don't carry the day with their shallow, ideological-bound perspectives and unwillingness to actually fund education at a proper level. There have been at least a dozen good studies done on how to provide an excellent education for our children since A Nation at Risk but do the decision makers know anything about any of them? It seems not! Fortunately we have pretty good schools where I live but in many states it doesn't look good.“Maybe those unenlightened educators of 50 or 60 years ago were onto something,” said a commenter from Virginia, as he praised his own admittedly brilliant education “way back in the 1950s.” Meanwhile, several readers were prepared to name the political figures behind our decline:
COMMENTER IN FLORIDA: Glad to see a reference to "Risk." I was teaching at the time, and thought it might make a difference. Oh, well.
COMMENTER FROM OHIO: The only people supporting Romney are the very wealthy and those who are just dissatisfied with the way the country is going. They don't realize that it is really the Bush legacy and the tea party stonewalling that has caused our lack of progress. I'm surprised he even attempted to come out with an education platform because he apparently doesn't have one.“It's time to go back to the basics again,” the fellow in Queens brightly said.
COMMENTER FROM QUEENS: If we have to repeal a law why not repeal No Child Left Behind?? All this emphasis on test, test, test isn't working. Why don't we go back to what once worked—the three tier diploma system—Academic, Commercial and General diplomas.
A few of Collins’ commenters challenged the notion that the schools are in decline, but the gloomier sentiments strongly prevailed. This fact was somewhat strange—especially given these commenters’ tendency to praise their own reading skills.
What made it strange to see these readers wailing about our schools’ decline? Just this: Collins seemed to say, right in her column, that the public schools are not in decline! Even as they praised their own reading skills, Collins’ readers showed no sign of having read this admittedly brief passage, which Collins somehow managed to wedge among all the jokes and the snark:
COLLINS (5/26/12): If there’s an education crisis, it’s one of at least 50 years duration. By the best national assessment we have available, it appears that the math skills of American fourth- and eighth-graders have been going up slowly but steadily for decades. Reading scores are also a tad better, although pretty flat. We need to do much better, and the fight over what to do next is mainly between people who think the big problem is a lack of resources and those who think it’s all about accountability and standards and tests. Romney is definitely way over in camp two.Say what? Math skills of our fourth- and eighth-graders “have been going up steadily for decades?” Mightn’t that mean that our students’ math skills have risen a good deal over that period?
One lone commenter, out of 389, noted this surprising passage, correctly saying that this seemed be “a ginormously important fact you've sprinkled into this essay.” (To read his full comment, click here.) But Collins’ readers, by and large, completely ignored this part of her column. But no other reader commented on that passage—and his comment rated only 12 recommendations from other readers.
By way of contrast, snarky comments about the way Romney sucks often churned well over 100 recommendations. “Mitt-speak is starting to sound a lot like Palin-speak” racked up 535.
In this way, we get a glimpse of the tribal cluelessness of the emerging liberal world—and we get an unfortunate glimpse of the laziness of Gail Collins. Plainly, Collins refers in that passage to the federally-run National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the universally-praised “gold standard of educational testing.” It’s also clear that Collins explicitly vouches for the NAEP as a valid educational measure. But her account of what the NAEP data show is tossed off in a “Connecticut suburbs minute”—and her account isn’t especially accurate to boot.
In fact, math skills have risen vastly in the past few decades, if we apply a rough rule of thumb which is commonly applied to scores on the NAEP. Education writers routinely apply this rule of thumb—but only to produce gloomy claims about the achievement gap.
Collins could have told her readers that the rise in math skills seems quite large on this testing program, for which she vouches. But for whatever reason, she didn’t do that, and they persisted with comments straight outta their own ill-informed, self-impressed haze.
Gaze on the liberal project! Had Collins spent a bit less time talking about Mitt Romney’s dog and misleading her readers about his word choices; had she skipped the apology for the boredom involved in discussing the schools at all; had she told a few less jokes and engaged in a bit less snark, Collins might have found time to tell her readers a few of the many things they don’t know.
But Collins is hopelessly lazy—a consummate slacker. In her columns, she provides reliable tribal blow-jobs, for which her readers persistently thank her. These same readers are often eager to tell us how stupid and uninformed the other tribe is, even as they display their own manifest cluelessness.
There is a great deal of truth to that view about modern conservative voters, of course. In the past few decades, the conservative leadership has produced mountains of disinformation—and a great many people have purchased the con. But when our own tribe finally emerged from its nap in the woods, we were pretty much as dumb as the other folks are—and people like Collins, snarking and joking, are keeping us in that sad state.
At this site, we have endlessly described the apparent meaning of the NAEP scores of the past few decades. In our view, Collins’ account of these score gains seems to understate the apparent amount of progress. Having said that, we would like to see education writers—and even our “educational experts”—explore those data further. We would like to see experts from the NAEP itself explain what the score gains mean.
But alas! You live in a world where established elites simply don’t care about low-income kids. Your elites don't care what those score gains mean; they plainly don't care about low-income kids. Their every move makes this disinterest plain. Collins makes her disinterest plain with every snarky breath.
Plainly, Collins does care about dogs. But does she care about low-income kids? Tomorrow, we’ll briefly consider those NAEP scores again—and we’ll proceed to what Collins said, in the few words she typed, about Mitt Romney’s proposals.
Tomorrow: A slacker pretends to do Mitt