Repetition concerning those kids today!

MONDAY, MARCH 18, 2013

Where does false belief come from: False belief tends to be rooted in constant repetition.

We thought of that fact when we read this letter in Saturday’s Washington Post:
LETTER TO THE WASHINGTON POST (3/16/13): The Common Core regimentation of kindergarten can only sadden those of us who were fortunate enough to have gone to school before World War II, when kindergarten was devoted entirely to socializing children. The only specific thing we ever learned was nursery rhymes. We spent our time playing games or listening to our teacher read to us. Now some poor little kids even have homework in kindergarten. This, I would submit, is likely to stunt their social and academic development.

We never learned anything of substance until the first grade, but then we went on to learn substantially more than children seem to be learning today. There was no prejudice against memorization, now usually disparaged by preceding it with the pejorative “rote.” We acquired a great deal of knowledge this way. For example, we memorized multiplication tables. Now one sees young people using calculators to solve simple multiplication problems. We learned to think by using the tools of knowledge we acquired.

WLS, North Bethesda
Doggone it! These darn kids today!

The writer seems sure that his generation “learned substantially more than children seem to be learning today.” As they perused his letter, Post readers heard a very familiar old story repeated again.

In fact, there are few reliable educational data for the pre-World War II generation. But we will guess that very few readers of the Post have ever heard about the changes in reading and math scores over the past forty years.

Since the writer focused on math scores, let’s restrict ourselves to those. We’ll look at the “long-term trend assessments” of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). To review that report, just click here.

The NAEP’s math testing started in 1973; the most recent “long-term trend assessment” occurred in 2008. Over that 35-year span, math scores have gone through the roof among both white kids and black kids.

Very few people have ever heard that. On the other hand, we’re constantly exposed to hoary old tales like the tale which was told in that letter.

In American journalism, everybody swears by the NAEP—but nobody ever reports what NAEP data show. So here goes:

Among 9-year-olds, black students gained 37 points in math between 1973 and 2008. White students gained 27 points during that same period. Among 13-year-olds, the black score gain was even higher. The white score gain was smaller but was still substantial.

How large a gain in math achievement might such score gains indicate? In major newspapers, we are constantly told that ten points on the NAEP scale is equal to one academic year. But we’re only told that in contexts when that produces a negative outcome—for example, when we’re talking about the achievement gap which still exists between black and white kids.

No, Virginia! Almost surely, black 9-year-olds haven’t gained 3.7 years in math achievement since 1973. We always say you should regard that ten-point rule of thumb as a very rough measure.

But newspapers like the Washington Post never tire of letters like that, in which these kids today are mammoth embarrassing failures. Dumbness is built out of repetition—and when it comes to approved elite scripts, our world has no shortage of that.


  1. I'm sure this letter to the editor thoroughly convinced those whose primary source of information is letters to the editor.

    1. This letter is evidence of common thinking that is reinforced through repetition of misinformation and failure of major news sources to report accurate and important information. I think that's Mr. S's point, not that anybody relies on letters to the editor as a standard news source.

      In complete agreement with Mr. S. here, but I would also note that people's memories of "what it was like in my day," as distorted and even as inaccurate as those memories often are, can provide useful ideas. In this instance, should kindergarten (and elementary school generally) be doing more with nursery rhymes, music, coordinated movement and dance? (I personally believe we do need more of this sort of thing in our schools, that we have lost something of great value with the decline in these activities.)

  2. Washington Post headline (and slant) for the information above -- if, that is, they even had the integrity to report it:


    (White students are the majority -- get it?)

  3. Here is a simpler way to state those math gains without getting tangled up in how many points equals a year of instruction:
    The average black 9-year-old taking the NAEP in 2008 scored better than 83 percent of the black 9-year-olds who took the same test in 1978. The average white 9-year-old taking the test in 2008 did better than 78 percent of the white 9-year-olds who took it in 1978. (The long term NAEP data explorer doesn't go back before 1978}. Clearly, that represents vast improvement. In 2008, black kids had the same average score as white kids did in 1978, but they started from much further behind and gaps persist if both groups do better.

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  5. Just a quick question: how many kids actually went to kindergarden before WWII?

  6. Where do people get false beliefs? From a steady diet of comfortable opinion.

    MSNBC offers viewers far more commentary and opinion than either Fox News or CNN, according to a new study, but all of the big three cable networks are increasingly focused on partisan talk and debate.

    Opinion filled 85 percent of the content on MSNBC, according to the Pew Research Center’s 2013 State of the News Media report. On Fox News, commentary made up 55 percent of its coverage, while CNN was the only of the big three cable news channels to produce more straight reporting than opinion.

    Even so, story packages and daytime live event coverage on CNN was cut down by about half between 2007 and 2012, the report found.

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