Joe Nocera has no idea what he’s talking about!


Major journalist who can’t seem to write complains about kids who can’t read: Joe Nocera has no idea what he’s talking about!

You can tell that from the ridiculous headline which sits atop this morning’s column: “How to Fix the Schools.”

New York Times columnists write their own headlines. Who would write one like that?

Does Joe Nocera actually know “how to fix the schools?” In this column, he doesn’t even specify what he wants to fix, although there are certainly many problems.

At one point, citing an educational expert, he does at least give us a hint. According to Nocera, two countries, a province and a city “have far better results than we do.”

He doesn’t explain, but we can assume that he refers to scores on international tests:
NOCERA (9/18/12): [Marc] Tucker, 72, a former senior education official in Washington, is the president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, which he founded in 1988. Since then he has focused much of his research on comparing public education in the United States with that of places that have far better results than we do—places like Finland, Japan, Shanghai and Ontario, Canada. His essential conclusion is that the best education systems share common traits—almost none of which are embodied in either the current American system or in the reform ideas that have gained sway over the last decade or so. He can sound frustrated when he talks about it.
According to Nocera, Tucker knows “how to fix the schools.” That said, there is no sign that Nocera has any idea if that implied claim is true.

Consider the claim about those places which “have far better results.”

As usual, Finland is waved like a magic wand, the source of all earthly reform. But does Finland get far better results than we do with children living in poverty—or with low-income immigrant children from low-literacy backgrounds who don’t speak the language?

Trust us: Nocera doesn’t have any idea! Nor did it occur to him to ask Tucker any such question. And good God! In the on-line version of his column, Nocera provides a link beneath the words, “far better results.”

Nocera’s link takes us to a post at the Guardian; the post says nothing at all about any country’s “results.” (Ontario and Shanghai aren’t mentioned.) The site to which Nocera links presents data about a range of inputs—“class size, teacher's pay and spending.”

That’s good information, but it isn’t “results.” Does Joe Nocera have any idea what he’s talking about?

In his column, Nocera simply reports the beliefs of Tucker concerning our public schools. He makes no attempt to help us know if Tucker’s beliefs make sense. Unsurprisingly, Tucker thinks we need better teachers, an idea which has occurred to about three million other people by now.

Question: How much would better teachers help us with our greatest challenges—challenges Finland doesn’t face? There is no sign that Nocera asked. He simply recites what Tucker has said, assuming that these unremarkable ideas will magically “fix the schools.”

To his credit, Nocera opposes the tendency to demonize teachers unions. But even here, he makes a standard pointless claim—he says that many “high performing” nations do have teachers unions. That said, what if our unions are out of their minds while the unions in Finland are not? It doesn’t seem to have occurred to Nocera that one country could have a real problem with teachers groups while some other country did not.

For ourselves, we don’t think our teachers unions are the source of our problems. But that’s not the point of this post.

Manifestly, Nocera has no idea what he’s talking about in this morning's column. But when it comes to the public schools, this basic fact stops none of our pundits from throwing decrees from on high.

“How to Fix the Schools!” Joe Nocera has no idea. And he seems to have no idea that he has no idea!

Really and truly, who are these people? Unless we grade on a very broad curve, their “results” are amazingly weak.

Tomorrow: That New York Times editorial

That Guardian site offers one result: At the site to which Nocera links, one graph does seem to involve educational “results.” The graph is titled, Top achieving immigrant children.

The text accompanying the graph is hard to decipher. The graph seems to say that 55 percent of all top-achieving US students are immigrant children. (Of all those in the top quartile.) We would assume that can’t be true. But that’s what the graph seems to say.

Does the Guardian mangle these matters too? We'll admit it: We have no idea what that graph means.

That said, Finland seems to rank near the bottom on this graph. Nocera linked us to it!


  1. This blog post is a splendid example of misreading that apparently results from a lack of willingness to comprehend a writer's message. I found Mr. Nocera's commentary very easy to understand, and hope that countless thousands also found it easy. Mr. Somerby makes much of Mr. Nocera's link to a Guardian article that focuses on educational costs in the United Kingdom; but that Guardian article leads with information about and two links to the useful, copious OECD data that includes the results Mr. Nocera is alleged to be ignorant of. Mr. Nocera probably assumed his readers either already knew which nations were achieving better results than we have been or that they would find that out for themselves with a minimum amount of effort; he may not have anticipated that he would be attacked for being unclear by those who put more effort into their writing than into their reading.

    1. This comment is a splendid example of misreading that apparently results from a lack of willingness to comprehend a writer's message.

      For Somerby's point is clearly not about "which nations were achieving better results than we have been."

      Rather the point is whether certain reform ideas (I use the term loosely) make any *sense*.

      Somerby's claim is that Nocera "simply recites what Tucker has said, assuming that these unremarkable ideas will magically “fix the schools.”"

      Against that claim, the fact that the Guardian article, linked to from Nocera's NYT article, itself has a link to a table of European education data is no argument whatsoever.

      Does Nocera actually raise relevant questions about the differences between education systems?

      It's not so much that Nocera is unclear, more that he is useless.

  2. Nocera doesn't raise the questions that Somerby wishes he had; he doesn't do all kinds of things in this column, such as conveying his Christmas wish list or revealing his weight. What he does do is convey implied agreement with Tucker's argument that the dispute in Chicago is over issues that are largely beside the point, and that instead of fighting over current mistaken strategies for reform, we ought to be focusing on improving both the inputs and outputs of our teachers' colleges, and we should work with unions to improve the teaching profession. I don't think it useless to make these arguments, and see no reason to claim that he doesn't know what he's talking about.

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