MEDIOCRITY ALL THE WAY UP: Our nation’s ongoing statistical gong-shows!


Part 2—What does it take to get fired: Given our clownish intellectual culture, our greatest newspapers strive to spread bogus claims all around.

Consider two letters in today’s New York Times about a recent disgraceful column concerning American schools. Today’s letters present a pair of Standard Familiar Dueling Claims—standard familiar dueling claims, each of which seems to be bogus.

One of these familiar letters propounds a Standard Gloomy Assessment. That recent column, by Harvard’s Jal Mehta, began in standard fashion with the gloomy 1983 report, A Nation at Risk.

This morning, one reader starts there too. He’s gloomy, sad and alarmed:
LETTER TO THE NEW YORK TIMES (4/16/13): The alarming conclusion of the 1983 report “A Nation at Risk” was, “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”

Sadly, three decades later our country has done little to improve the quality of education...
This reader says he’s alarmed and sad—but his basic claim is somewhat hard to credit. Judging by the federal testing program Mehta uses as his principal source, achievement in reading and math have soared in the thirty years since A Nation at Risk. (We refer to the NAEP, the widely-lauded National Assessment of Education Progress.)

Who knows? The reader may not credit those NAEP test scores, but Mehta plainly does. So does the New York Times, in its education reporting. But so what? In his column, Mehta cherry-picked data from the NAEP within an inch of the program’s life—and the New York Times let him do it.

The conduct displayed is worse than mediocre. But within our modern intellectual elites, it’s mediocrity, or something worse, all the way to the top!

Mehta's cherry-picked data let him propound the gloomy claims modern “experts” adore. Needless to say, the Times tends to cherry-pick NAEP scores in its reporting in the same way Mehta does.

Sure enough! This morning, the Times has printed another letter advancing the gloomy claim “experts” like Mehta adore. But how nice! As an equal opportunity bumbler, the Times also prints a second letter—a letter advancing an upbeat claim which is becoming familiar on “the left.”

This second claim isn’t gloomy at all. But in various ways, this emerging claim is also misleading or wrong:
LETTER TO THE NEW YORK TIMES (4/16/13): In recent years there have been several reports, such as that cited by Jal Mehta, of how our country’s education system is performing at lower standards compared with many countries around the world.

It must be pointed out that urban education is a great challenge in America, depressing the rankings. The top high schools in America do not play second fiddle to those of any country...
There is no doubt that “urban education” is a great challenge in our country. There is no doubt that test scores from our low-income schools tend to depress our average scores and our international rankings.

And not only that! On a narrow basis, the highlighted claim from that letter may even be technically accurate; in part, it depends on what the meaning of “top high school” is. That said, this claim is second cousin to a claim in which “progressives” argue that American schools outscore all other nations—as long as we restrict ourselves to American schools which have low poverty levels.

This upbeat claim has been gaining purchase. In this presentation from last year,Stanford professor Linda Darling-Hammond treats the public like fools and spreads a misleading picture:
DARLING-HAMMOND (4/27/12): There is much handwringing about low educational attainment in the United States these days. We hear constantly about U.S. rankings on assessments like the international PISA tests: The United States was 14th in reading, 21st in science, 25th in math in 2009, for example...

There is another story we rarely hear: Our children who attend schools in low-poverty contexts are doing quite well. In fact, U.S. students in schools in which less than 10 percent of children live in poverty score first in the world in reading, out-performing even the famously excellent Finns.
Darling-Hammond says she’s referring to “U.S. students in schools in which less than 10 percent of children live in poverty.” Surely, this august professor knows that this statement is false.

In fact, Darling-Hammond is referring to NCES statistics about schools where fewer than ten percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. That is not a measure of poverty, as this lauded “expert” surely knows. (For a link to the data in question, see our note below.)

In fact, more than forty percent of U.S. students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. When we limit ourselves to American schools where fewer than ten percent quality, we are talking about a small number of schools from our wealthiest neighborhoods.

One weekend a few months ago, we spent several hours trying to see how many Maryland schools fit this narrow rubric. Looking back at our notes, we see that we didn’t finish our effort, which is labor-intensive. But in two of the state’s biggest school districts, Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties, only 25 schools met the test out of 257 total. Halfway through a third large district, (suburban) Baltimore County, we had found only four schools which met that test—and Maryland is a relatively wealthy state, it must be noted.

In several of Maryland’s smaller counties, no schools qualified for inclusion after applying the ten percent test. It’s hardly surprising if schools like the ones which are left—schools from Montgomery County’s wealthiest neighborhoods—can outscore the full populations of other nations, where those national populations are taken warts and all.

It should be appalling to see Darling-Hammond advance this misleading statistic, while falsely claiming that she is discussing a measure of poverty. (Frankly, it makes us wonder what an expert has to do to get herself fired at Stanford.) But if “experts” are willing to peddle such claims, the New York Times will be happy to join them. This morning, the Times balances a standard bogus gloomy claim with this bogus upbeat assertion.

So classic! Readers hear two sides of the story, each of which is wrong!

This brings us back to Mehta, whose disgraceful column was being discussed in those dueling letters.

In fairness to Mehta, he’s a bright young lad with some pretty ideas. No doubt his pleasing dreams have helped him advance at Harvard, the institution which gave Michelle Rhee cover for her first set of bogus claims, the ones which helped build her career. (We refer to Rhee’s bogus claims about her astounding success as a teacher. In its terminal dumbness, the New York Times couldn’t see that those self-glorying claims were always absurd on their face.)

What are the lovely dreams that dance in Mehta’s head? If you read his very long column, you will see them advanced. But in this passage, we see the lift of a young expert’s driving dream. Mehta was dreaming a dream this day about how we might build better schools:
MEHTA (4/13/13): Teachers in leading nations’ schools also teach much less than ours do. High school teachers provide 1,080 hours per year of instruction in America, compared with fewer than 600 in South Korea and Japan, where the balance of teachers’ time is spent collaboratively on developing and refining lesson plans. These countries also have much stronger welfare states; by providing more support for students’ social, psychological and physical needs, they make it easier for teachers to focus on their academic needs. These elements create a virtuous cycle: strong academic performance leads to schools with greater autonomy and more public financing, which in turn makes education an attractive profession for talented people.
Presumably, it would be a good thing if “talented people” turned to teaching. To help this happen, Mehta seems to think we should adopt a “much stronger welfare state.”

For the most part, that would be fine with us! But while we’re at it, should root beer emerge from our schools’ water fountains? Mehta doesn’t say.

In his column, Mehta proposes The Current Standard Idea of the nation’s official guild of standard “educational experts;” he says we should have better teachers. No doubt, many people who aren’t educational experts can see the merit in this idea, if that’s what we’re willing to call it.

It’s true! Almost surely, our nation’s schools would be improved if we had better teachers! But then, imagine how great our universities would be if folk like Darling-Hammond and Mehta were replaced with better professors!

There’s nothing wrong with Mehta’s “idea,” although on its face it may seem rather obvious. The disgrace of this disgraceful column comes in the way he convinces us of the need for his driving dream to take shape.

On Thursday, we will run through the disgraceful way Mehta cherry-picks the basic data on which he bases his column. But tomorrow, we’ll review that gong-show statistic, the one concerning Finland.

Question: What does it take to get fired from Harvard? On a second front, how absurd must a submission be before the Times tells the “expert” who wrote it that it might need a bit more work?

Tomorrow: Beyond the valley of The Terminal Gong-Show

The gong-show in question: On Thursday, we’ll look at Mehta’s disgraceful cherry-picking—the cherry-picking with which he convinced that first reader that our country “has done little to improve the quality of education” since A Nation at Risk.

Tomorrow, though, we will examine the highlighted claim you see below—and yes, the New York Times actually printed this:
MEHTA (4/13/13): It need not be this way. In the nations that lead the international rankings—Singapore, Japan, South Korea, Finland, Canada—teachers are drawn from the top third of college graduates, rather than the bottom 60 percent as is the case in the United States. Training in these countries is more rigorous, more tied to classroom practice and more often financed by the government than in America. There are also many fewer teacher-training institutions, with much higher standards. (Finland, a perennial leader in the P.I.S.A. rankings, has eight universities that train teachers; the United States has more than 1,200.)
Editors at the New York Times couldn’t see what was wrong with the highlighted passage. But then, within our modern intellectual elites, it’s mediocrity all the way up!

Concerning the ten percent test: No, Virginia (and Maryland too)—Darling-Hammond isn’t talking about a measure of poverty. Nor should it be hugely surprising if schools which meet that ten percent test can exceed the average scores of other entire nations.

That said, Darling-Hammond’s slippery claim is becoming standard on the educational pseudo-left. To see its source, peruse the report by the National Center of Education Statistics concerning the 2009 PISA. Just click here, then scroll down to page 15.

The statements by the NCES are technically accurate. (Darling-Hammond’s statement isn’t.) In our view, the NCES should offer more context when it advances this claim, which has proven to be misleading.

Final point: Other studies suggest that our wealthier schools may not be matching their counterparts in other developed nations. We’d love to see this topic fully explored and reported.

The New York Times will be up to that task at some point in the next millenium. As one commentator has noted:

Within our journalistic elite, it’s mediocrity all the way up!


  1. Not being facetious here, but I am not understanding Bob's point. The writing here is unclear, and it's a point I'd like to grasp. He's disenchanted with Mehta and others, but why exactly?

    I need to "phone a friend": Can Bob or one of his faithful readers distill his argument in a paragraph? I would be most grateful.

    1. Looks like Bob mainly intends to explain the problems with Mehta's work tomorrow and Thursday, so stay tuned.

      Meanwhile, today, it's mostly Darling-Hammond who takes a well-deserved beating.

      "Our children who attend schools in low-poverty contexts are doing quite well. In fact, U.S. students in schools in which less than 10 percent of children live in poverty score first in the world in reading," Ms. Darling-Hammond writes.

      I think any fair reading of Somerby today is that he explains pretty well why that's not merely factually wrong (The "poverty" exclusion would represent a relatively small slice of America, while the actual measure, qualifying for free-or-reduced-price school lunch, is a huge slice of America), but also quite misleading.

  2. Here is one point: People at elite institutions (such as Harvard, Stanford and the NY Times) should not be using misleading statistics to promote favorite memes, especially about education but on other topics too.

    Bob asks what it takes to get fired at Harvard, but academic freedom means letting the research community address the errors in a scholar's work. Harvard has the choice to eventually tenure or not tenure Mehta based on the quality of his work, but it cannot fire him because he says things they disagree with (or that they consider to be "wrong"). The protection afforded by tenure is more important than weeding out mediocre or false statements because it prevents persecution of scholars for unpopular views. It is a basic tenet of science that it requires freedom of inquiry. That value clashes with the public's need for correct information. That's why scholars usually communicate with other scholars (who can and do evaluate the quality of their work) instead of the general public, who cannot judge the correctness of what they are told on topics requiring expertise.

    Mehta should know better than to use his job as a podium for expressing opinions like this, but he is new. The NY Times is taking advantage of his innocence and this whole exchange may wind up being harmful to his career.

  3. It's completely irrelevant whether free or reduced lunch indicates the level of poverty or not. It's also irrelevant how large the top tier is. You go into intellectual battle with the data you have, not the data you wish you had.

    In the context of the battle that is actually going on in this country, one which the negative side has been winning for several decades and causing terrible public policy to be made, Darling-Hammond's statement is a perfectly reasonable, accurate and easily grasped shorthand to undercut the other side's claims about what "international tests" show. That is the only purpose for her simplified version. There's nothing actionable being supported by it other than to cast doubt on the conventional wisdom.

    These schools with low poverty -- and as a pure factual inference, schools with less than 10% free or reduced lunch are low poverty schools -- are every bit as much public schools teaching within any given state the same curricula and being run in substantially the same way (tenure, unions, step compensation levels based on seniority and education and are public knowledge) as schools with high levels of lower income students. If any sizable segment of U.S. public schools exceeds or even comes close to matching either their socioeconomic peers in those countries (which they do) or the entire country's performance where there is much less poverty and inequality, it undermines the standard narrative that leads to such "solutions" in search of a problem as charter schools or so-called "merit pay."

    TDH has his own narrative of tribal competition -- which is actually a weak metaphor since these "tribes" are chosen based on one's political beliefs and therefore are unlike any other group of people classified as a "tribe" -- and his peacock brain demands that his only-adult-in-the-room version of the narrative be fed every day. Force fed, even, when you ignore the context to make the point.

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