Slate debunks a treasured fiction!


Our test scores were crap all along: On recent Sundays, we have stared at a weekly feature in the Washington Post Outlook section.

We’ve stared at the section’s “Five Myths” feature. For last Sunday’s example, click here.

By now, the paper has pretty much run out of topics about which it can debunk five myths. But how about “Five Myths About Our Public Schools?” As far as we know, the Post has never gone there!

This Sunday, that could change!

Just in case you couldn’t tell, Slate is owned by the Washington Post. Yesterday, this piece appeared at Slate. In the piece, Claremont professor David Drew debunks five myths about science education.

This is Drew’s first myth:
MYTH: American schools have deteriorated in the past 30 or 40 years, as demonstrated by our poor performance on international assessments of math and science achievement. We need to restore American elementary and secondary education to their previous glory.

FACT: The mantra from many educators and policy-makers for a quarter-century has been to lament the decline of American schools. Even the classic 1983 report “A Nation at Risk,” which sounded the alarm about the American education system, says, “What was unimaginable a generation ago has begun to occur—others are matching and surpassing our educational attainments.” But this is a flawed assessment of our past.

The fact that we score poorly now does not mean that our educational system has deteriorated. In fact, it was always bad. Our high school students have always scored at or near the bottom, even as our college and university system was, and is, the best in the world. In a 1965 mathematics assessment, 18 years prior to “A Nation at Risk,” the United States placed last among all nations tested. The other nations achieved mean scores from 36.4 to 21.6. The U.S. score: 13.8.
Even though Drew is excessively gloomy, people ought to know such facts. In Saturday’s Washington Post, readers saw something quite different:

“Our K-12 schools have slid from the best in the world to mediocre under both Republican and Democratic presidents and governors.” So Matt Miller oddly said, repeating a type of claim which suffuses our public discussion. See yesterday's DAILY HOWLER.

Were our K-12 schools ever best in the world? As far as we know, that’s just fiction. But then, our public discourse is fictitious all the way down.

Is Drew’s piece on its way to Outlook? Many myths about public schools drive our current pseudo-discussions. Everyone from Gail Collins on down enjoys telling stupid false tales about schools.

Our pundits all say they care about schools. In truth, it seems no one does.


  1. Quaker in a BasementJune 20, 2012 at 11:55 AM

    The fact that we score poorly now does not mean that our educational system has deteriorated. In fact, it was always bad.


  2. In fact, despite the statement by Professor Drew, who perhaps realizes it could be career suicide to make the most accurate statement, we do not "score poorly" in PISA tests relative to other countries. In reading, despite certain handicaps noted below, we score better than a number of European counties, including Germany, Sweden, the UK, France and Denmark. The U.S. scores in science are comparable in international standing to the reading scores -- with some notable exceptions, including considerably higher science scores in the UK -- while we really do fall down in math. That perhaps was the main filter through which Professor Drew was looking at the data to draw his misleading overall conclusion.

    Of course, the common denominator is that the U.S. is the most unequal of all the major counties, with the highest poverty. When you try to correct for that difference -- which, after all, is important for determining the extent to which the education system is fundamentally flawed across-the-board (as, for example, with blaming lazy teachers and their powerful union bosses), or is a product of societal differences that require different corrective approaches -- U.S. education overall shows up quite well, even at the top of the scale by some ways of looking at the dtata. Kids in the suburbs are getting an education equal to that of any country in the world.

    The main qualifier is that for some reason, American kids in general are doing relatively poorly in math compared to how they stand reading and science. We should try to figure out why -- is it the way math is taught, or is there some cultural issue? -- and fix that. Of course, math teachers everywhere are trying to figure that out, as they have been for a long, long time. Their infernal unions, recognizing that their members have as keen an interest in better teaching as in getting rich, have zero interest in preventing them from adopting better approaches to math education. Then again, logic has not been a strong suit of the education reform industry, whether of the Democratic (Obama, Duncan, Gates) or Republican varieties.

    Bottom line: American education has not deteriorated -- the NAEP historical data reinforces the international data on that -- and it is a gross exaggeration to say it was "always bad."

    1. For some reason, elementary school educators, or at least the commanding curricular/academic heights, prefer 'discovery' teaching methods over a balance of discovery and direct instruction. In math education, this has gotten exceptionally extreme in the last 10-20 years, and the ideology resists all test scores and other facts showing it doesn't work. Every step of the way, students are asked to discover and experiment with algorithms, and this goes on for many weeks, rather than just be told, in clear direct instruction, how to carry the one, for example. Anyway, here's one of many sites on the topic:

    2. I should add that the passion for discovery-only approaches was also the focus of the 'reading wars' of the 1980-90s over the teaching of reading in the early elementary years. Facts and test scores didn't move the purists, who also controlled the academic institutions producing the teachers, so most states in the 90s had to legislate a balanced phonics/discovery approach. This may be one among several reasons reading scores have risen over the last 20 years or so.

  3. Thank you, urban legend. Well said.

  4. "Kids in the suburbs are getting an education equal to that of any country in the world."

    All I have is anecdotal evidence, but having worked in a suburban community college (fed by some of the best public schools in the country according to US News) for over 20 years, I can tell you our remedial English and Math classes have been bursting at the seems. And a colleague's son who went through the graduate Math program at the State University tells us students can pass College Algebra, because of the curve, by getting only one-third of test answers correct.

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